First group of Tennessee Promise students graduates soon

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Many families with a graduating high school senior are no longer discussing if they can go to college, but where they’re going to college. This is possible because of a state-run scholarship program.

Under the Tennessee Promise program, students can go to a community or technical college for two years tuition-free. It’s a landmark piece of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, a goal for 55 percent of Tennesseans to have a degree or credential by 2025.

As of right now, high schoolers are applying to be in the third class of this scholarship program and in a matter of a few weeks, the first class of Tennessee Promise students will graduate.

“That was probably the main reason why I chose accounting. My options were unlimited,” said Jacob Henninger a senior at Pellissippi State Community College.

He says choosing where to go to college was easy because of Tennessee Promise.

“Looking at the numbers, I mean, at Pellissippi I would be paying zero dollars for two years and at UT, I would pay a lot more than zero dollars.”

There are no income requirements and no GPA requirements. Tennessee Promise launched in fall 2015 with 16,291 students registered in the program.

“It coincided with a massive jump in the state’s college going rate. So we had about 4,000 new enrollees in higher education across the state in just one year and we attribute quite a bit of that to Tennessee Promise,” said Kate Derrick with Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

To date, more than 33,000 are enrolled in Tennessee Promise and those students are staying enrolled. About 63 percent have been coming back for a second year, a number the Tennessee Higher Education Commission is proud of.

“A really important part of Tennessee Promise, for us, is that students have to enroll full-time. We have seen the data that tells us that students who enroll full-time are more likely to graduate,” added Derrick.

In two years, the program has made a difference at Pellissippi. At their five campuses, they’re seeing more and more people applying.

More online: Apply for the scholarship or to be a mentor

“So our average age is dropping a little bit and I think that this is because of the entry level, traditional age student that 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds that are benefiting from Tennessee Promise,” said Dr. Leigh Anne Touzeau, assistant vice president of enrollment services at Pellissippi.

The spike has led to Pellissippi adding more class sections.

“We believe that it is very important for students to get the one-on-one attention that they need, and we’ve been so successful with that,” added Dr. Touzeau.

In about six months we’ll know just how many of the 2015 class will move on to a four year university because students can begin transferring as late as mid-summer.

“What we’re trying to do is build a college going culture in every community in our state,” said Derrick.

Henninger, who is graduating and then going to UT, says every choice has been the right one.

“I wish I could be here longer but everything comes to an end. But I don’t know if there’s anyone luckier than I am right now,” he said.

With the scholarship program, students are required to give back and so far we’re told they’ve completed a million hours of community service across the state.

Students are also connected to a volunteer mentor. Tennessee Higher Education Commission says 9,000 people have stepped up and given guidance.

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