It’s a promise…but not a guarantee
By Tammy Childress
A statewide mentoring program modeled on a successful Knoxville-area effort will be a key component of Tennessee Promise, the new program providing two years of community college or a college of applied technology (TCAT) free of tuition and fees to graduating Tennessee high school seniors.
Announced in February, Tennessee Promise is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative aimed at increasing the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. The scholarship does not cover books, only tuition. That equates to roughly $1,900 per semester for a full-time student.
As its moniker states, it’s a promise, not a guarantee. According to Dr. Janice Gilliam, president, Northeast State Community College, “Students who qualify for the Pell Grant will not get the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, because there is no need for it. Tennessee Promise pays for tuition and Pell covers tuition and books. Sixty percent of our students qualify for Pell and some not 100 percent, which means that Tennessee Promise would cover the other 40 percent for those right out of high school. That’s a smaller portion of our enrollment. We typically enroll around 8,500 students per year and 15–20 percent of those are right out of high school. So it’s not a huge portion of our enrollment and the rest are non-traditional students.”
Tennessee Promise is also available to homeschooled students, and those who receive a General Education Diploma (GED) or a High School Equivalency Test Diploma (HiSET diploma). Though Gilliam is unsure of the parameters and ages of those students, those three groups have been identified as eligible for the scholarship.
Since it aims to attract students who may not otherwise have attended college, Tennessee Promise will rely heavily on a mentor network to help shepherd students through to successful degree or certificate completion. The mentor network, “TnAchieves,” is operating in communities across the state, actively seeking mentors willing to invest 10-15 hours per year.
“TnAchieves is an organization that is being formed to administer this scholarship,” Gilliam said. “It’s modeled after KnoxAchieves. The Knoxville area had free tuition for students in that region for the first two years. So this has already been used at Pellissippi State and Roane State and been scaled up to the state level.”
According to Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director, TnAchieves, “We are currently putting mentors in 82 counties across Tennessee to work with students. We are working very closely with Northeast State as well as other secondary institutions to recruit mentors. We really want to find the people who pull the levers in the community so that we can heighten awareness, not only for the students but for the volunteers that we think are critical for the success of this program. We’re currently working on what we are calling advisory councils in every county that can help us start recruiting mentors. We’re just starting to spread the word.”
Before getting established under a mentor, graduating seniors must complete several steps to qualify for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.
- Apply to the Tennessee Program at TNPromise.gov by Nov. 1 of this year. This is a hard date and any student who has not completed this step forfeits the opportunity.
- Apply to a community college or TCAT as soon as possible, and no later than Feb. 15, 2015. Again, if the deadline is missed, the opportunity to qualify for the Tennessee Promise is missed. It’s a one-time shot.
- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. That application is online at fafsa.ed.gov.
- Attend the first mandatory meeting coordinated by a partnering organization by March 1, 2015.
- Attend second mandatory meeting coordinated by a partnering organization by May 31, 2015.
The host of requirements necessary to keep the Tennessee Promise scholarship underscores the need for mentors, especially since many students are likely to be the first in their families to attend college. Those requirements include: The qualifying student must attend full time (12 hours) in an eligible postsecondary institution in the fall term immediately following graduation or diploma attainment (TCAT students may start as early as the summer term). The student must maintain continuous enrollment as a full-time student and maintain a minimum cumulative grade point average of 2.0. TCAT students must maintain satisfactory academic progress as determined by the school if enrolled in a certificate or diploma program. Students must also complete a minimum of eight hours of community service each semester. Visit driveto55.org/Tennessee-promise for more details.
Willingness to help more Tennesseans achieve is the most important requirement for mentors, who do not have to have college experience. If a mentor does not know an answer to a student’s question, TnAchieves is the resource for the mentor. This is “a foolproof system in that everybody who is passionate about education can be a part of this program,” DeAlejandro said. “We tried to design it so that the busiest mom, parent or professional can make an impact and yet not spend an exorbitant amount of time doing so.”
The requirements to becoming a TnAchieves mentor include:
- Be 21 years old or older;
- Pass a background check;
- Willing to invest 10-15 hours annually assisting five to ten high school seniors;
- Apply at tnachieves.org by Nov. 1;
- Complete mandatory mentor training by Dec. 15;
- Attend two assigned mandatory team meetings;
- Contact students at least once every two weeks from January through December.
TnAchieves currently operates in 27 counties and is expanding to 82 counties in Tennessee. According to DeAlejandro, “It has been exponential growth but it has been very exciting. I think what is critical to the student’s success is having someone with them to help them navigate; it’s all about the mentors.”
Gilliam agrees, “Some of the students may not have people in their families who have gone to college and so they may not know of all the ins and outs of college and the mentors will help them with that. They can also inspire them, encourage them and help keep them on track to keep the scholarship. The student must stay with the mentor for the full two years they are in college or they lose the scholarship. If they fail to meet any of the requirements, they are out of the program. Having a mentor can make a huge difference for some of the students continuing their education. This is not just about giving them an education, it’s about changing their whole mindset, changing their lives and their children’s lives and giving back to the community. It’s going to have a very positive impact.”