By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s free-tuition program has contributed to a spike in students pursuing a postsecondary degree at the state’s public higher education institutions, the program’s executive director said Thursday.
Tennessee Promise offers eligible high school seniors free tuition to a two-year community or technical college.
According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, 50,699 first-time freshmen enrolled in a public higher education institution this year, compared with 46,030 last year.
Tennessee Promise Executive Director Mike Krause said that of the 21,706 students enrolled in community colleges, 16,291, or 75 percent, are in the governor’s program.
“It is very encouraging for Tennessee to see such a significant increase in the number of students enrolling in college this fall,” Haslam said in an email from his spokesman. “We wanted to change the culture of expectations around post-secondary education in our state, and these numbers from the Tennessee Promise’s first year show that happening.”
Passed by the General Assembly in 2014, Tennessee Promise is a key component of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate beyond high school from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 in order to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.
“With a longtime goal like Drive to 55, we had always hoped to begin seeing a change in the number of Tennesseans going to college,” Krause said. “If we ultimately want more Tennesseans with a college degree, first we need to see more … going to college in the first place, and it would appear that is occurring.”
For the second straight year, Krause said nearly 60,000 high school seniors have applied for Tennessee Promise. In 2014, more than 58,000 students applied.
“The true promise with this program goes beyond college access and affordability,” said John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.
“The broader impact of the Tennessee Promise is the culture change happening across the state. For the first time, students and their families see college as an expectation, not just a dream. That’s the real promise.”
Krause said the program is close to reaching its goal of 9,000 volunteer mentors to work with the next class of Tennessee Promise students. He said the program has a little over 7,500 mentors, which is enough to effectively operate the program. The deadline to apply to be a mentor is Nov. 20.