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Interim UT President Randy Boyd speaks to students in Red Bank High School's library about the UT Promise Endowment campaign. Interim UT President Randy Boyd and UTC Chancellor Steve Angle were at Red Bank High School to discuss the UT Promise Endowment campaign with the school's juniors and seniors. / Staff Photo by Robin Rudd

This story was updated Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, at 6 p.m. with more information.

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UT Promise

University of Tennessee leaders, including Interim President Randy Boyd, believe the university system's new free college program — UT Promise — will expand options for students in a state that already offers several ways to access affordable, post-secondary education.

Boyd visited Red Bank High School in Hamilton County Wednesday morning to talk to juniors and seniors about the program and what it can offer them.

Not only is UT Promise a financial aid program, Boyd said, it is about mentorship and ensuring the students are successful.

"The financial part is important, but we want to make sure you're successful when you come to university, so we are also going to offer you some mentors," Boyd told the students gathered in the school library Wednesday.

To help students throughout the program, universities will provide mentors for students throughout the admissions process, as new students first entering college and as they graduate and look for a job or start a career, Boyd said.

Announced in March, UT Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program that guarantees free tuition and fees for qualifying Tennessee students who come from families with household incomes less than $50,000.

Students who are admitted to one of the UT system schools can receive scholarship funding to pay off remaining tuition and fees after other scholarships and grants have been used.

Undergraduate tuition went up at all three UT campuses this fall, with a 2.5% increase at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UT-Martin and a 2% increase at UT-Knoxville. The estimated in-state tuition cost for UT-Knoxville for the 2019-20 school year was $13,264 a year.

Students who are already enrolled who meet eligibility criteria are also able to apply, and the program is available for students transferring from a community college to one of the UT system schools.

Elaine Harper, principal at Red Bank, said she knew some Red Bank students could benefit from the program.

"I know firsthand the quality of educational opportunities available to you in the University of Tennessee system," she told students Wednesday. "However, I also know that for many of our Red Bank High School students, cost is definitely a barrier for taking advantage of these opportunities."

The program is about options, said state Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, who joined Boyd and UTC Chancellor Steven Angle at Red Bank Wednesday morning.

"This will allow our students to say, 'There's no ceiling on our opportunities,'" Hazlewood said. "We put a lot of tools in the toolbox, and this is another tool along with the Tennessee Promise [and] HOPE Scholarships. ... This is changing the lives of Tennessee students."

In the last several years, Tennessee has launched a variety of initiatives in an effort to achieve former Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55 goal of 55% of adults in the state earning some type of post-secondary degree or credential by 2025.

The Tennessee Promise program already provides free tuition to qualifying students who attend a community college or vocational school, and the HOPE Scholarship is available to graduating high school students who apply and meet the eligible requirements.

But UTC Chancellor Angle, who may discuss the UT Promise program in his State of the University Address Thursday, said that some students were academically qualified and would benefit from going straight to a four-year institution after high school.

"With the Tennessee Promise, students have the opportunity to [go] from high school to community college and then transfer to a four-year university," he said. "But there are some students that would match well with a four-year university and ought to have the opportunity to go straight to a university where they can get a leg up on career or graduate school. ... It'll open the door to more students who otherwise wouldn't have that opportunity."

Boyd said the system anticipates 2020 freshman class enrollment to increase by about 2,000 students system wide.

UTC actually saw a decline in enrollment of about 300 students when the Tennessee Promise program launched in 2015, but Angle said the school since has made up that gap.

Though UTC is not looking to substantially increase enrollment, at one time the school was pushing to have about 15,000 students enrolled. Enrollment has increased slowly since Angle took over leadership in 2013 by about 1,500 students, and this fall the school has 10,600 enrolled.

The schools may see more students applying, now that there is a new way to open up access to them.

Free college programs are a hot topic, especially among current Democratic presidential candidates, and other institutions across the country have launched their own programs similar to the UT Promise.

Schools like the University of Michigan and University of Texas offer similar programs that cover tuition and fees for students from families that make less than $50,000-$65,000 a year. Some of the nation's most prestigious Ivy League schools also often foot the bills for students from low-income households.

But the UT Promise program is the first time an entire university system in the country has launched such a program, Boyd said.

Boyd's visit to Hamilton County is part of a three-day tour to promote the program. Boyd will have visited eight counties and nine high schools at the culmination of his tour. On Tuesday night, he met with community leaders on UTC's campus.

Earlier this month, the UT system kicked off a $100 million endowment campaign to help permanently fund the UT Promise scholarship program.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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