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Tennessee reconnects with adult students, aims to boost workforce

May 17, 2017

Adults in Tennessee seeking to return to the classroom will have a new option for free tuition at community colleges, part of an expansion of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. The newly passed and expanded Tennessee Reconnect legislation extends eligibility for free tuition to persons who have been out of school for longer periods of time or who may have never attended college. It is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” focus, where he hopes to increase the percentage of the state’s adults equipped with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent; it is currently closer to 30 percent in Tennessee. In his press release on the program, Haslam said, “In Tennessee, we’ve determined that the best jobs plan is an education plan.”

The Tennessee Reconnect Act establishes a last-dollar scholarship for adults, available once other grants and scholarships have been exhausted. The governor has touted that the plan will not cost taxpayers anything, as it is being funded through the lottery for education account, and will cost approximately $10 million once fully implemented. Slated to begin in 2018, the state’s network of 13 community colleges have already begun planning for the influx of new students and some administrators are considering adding nighttime course offerings, according to a report in The Tennessean.

The program’s website reaffirms the governor’s belief, which he stated in his 2017 state of the state address earlier in the year, that the expansion of the Reconnect program will provide a payoff for the state’s workforce and economy, while employers will have higher-skilled workers and employees will have new career opportunities.

Eligibility requirements include not having previously earned an associate or bachelor degree, and applicants must be an independent student who has been a Tennessee resident for at least one year immediately preceding application for the grant, be admitted to a public community college in the state and enrolled in courses leading to completion of an eligible program of study, among other criteria. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA and maintain continuous enrollment leading to an associate’s degree or certificate. While Tennessee says it is the first in the nation to offer free community college to all state adults, other free tuition programs have been rolled out in other states, including the recent Excelsior Scholarship program in New York, Oregon Promise in Oregon and Arkansas’ ARFuture grant.

Different funding mechanisms are being utilized for each of the programs, and the impact of these initiatives is also under scrutiny. Reporting since Tennessee Promise launched has indicated concerns about enrollment at some of Tennessee’s four-year colleges declining as more students take advantage of community colleges.

Tennesseefree tuition, higher ed, workforce