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Tekesha Thomas remembers the moment she first heard Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's promise.
"I heard it and cried. I literally cried," Thomas said as she sat with her son at Chattanooga State Community College on Friday.
Thomas, a single mother, said she always wanted her son to attend college. She knew the doors it would open for him. The future he could have. And she worried for years that her limited income would bar him from the opportunity.
"Once I heard about the governor's promise, I told my son, 'all you have to do is graduate.'" Thomas said. "'College is paid for.'"
Thomas' 18-year-old son, William T. Williams, is one of more than 920 Hamilton County high school graduates eligible to enroll in college courses this fall with the Tennessee Promise.
Haslam signed the Tennessee Promise into law last year as a part of his "Drive to 55" initiative, which aims at boosting the rate of college graduates in Tennessee from 32 percent to 55 percent within the next 10 years. Tennessee Promise provides students with a mentor and last-dollar scholarships, meaning it foots the bill for tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship or state student assistance funds.
Apply for the Tennessee Promise at www.tnpromise.gov.
Apply to be a mentor for a Tennessee Promise student at www.tnachieves.org/a-mentor
The scholarship covers two years of post-secondary education and can be used at any of the state's 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or any eligible institution offering an associate's degree program. Mentors are available to help each student, especially first-generation college students, navigate the application process and adjust to the rigor of college courses.
High school graduates must have a 2.0 GPA and must have completed eight hours of community service by Aug. 1 to be eligible for the scholarship.
Williams, an Ooltewah High School graduate, said he completed his community service hours a couple weeks ago and is eager to start studying entrepreneurship at Chattanooga State in three weeks.
"A lot of kids needed this money in order to have this opportunity," Williams said. ". My life has had a lot of ups and downs, and this really gives me something like hope."
States from coast to coast have their eyes on Tennessee this year, watching to see if the promise yields the intended results of boosting college graduation rates and building a more educated and skilled workforce.
About 58,000 students applied for Tennessee Promise this year at their high school. As of Thursday, more than 18,700 fulfilled the requirements for the scholarship and are eligible to enroll in fall classes.
However, many Tennessee Promise applicants already knew they were going to school out of state or planned to attend a private or four-year university. And with three weeks remaining before college classes begin, people can only speculate how many of the 18,700 eligible Tennessee Promise students will enter the college classroom.
Chattanooga State normally enrolls about 700 local high school graduates each fall, and this number has increased by about 250 students this year because of Tennessee Promise, according to school officials.
The number of students who’ve completed their community service hours and are eligible to enroll in classes with the Tennessee Promise
Students with no community service hours: 12,178, or 38.6 percent
Students with some community service hours: 643, or 2 percent
Students with all 8 community service hours submitted: 18,737, or 59.4 percent
Students with no community service hours: 558 = 37.2%
Students with some community service hours: 19 = 1.2%
Students with all 8 community service hours submitted: 923 = 61.5%
TOTAL = 1,500
Source: Tennessee Achieves, as of July 30.
"Our number one priority is the success of our students, including our first class of Tennessee Promise students," Flora Tydings, president of Chattanooga State, said in a written statement. "We are excited to welcome them during this historic 50th anniversary of Chattanooga State while they too make history."
Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, estimates about 20 percent of students receiving the scholarship would not be able to attend college without it. He said that just having students fill out a FAFSA federal student aid application and apply for the scholarship is a large step in the right direction.
"We have changed the conversation about going to college in Tennessee. Students for years had been taking themselves off the table before even looking at their financial aid resources," Krause said. " Students who never considered going to college are now going."
Nay-sayers fear students won't follow through with the program and that the emphasis placed on a two-year degree will hurt traditional four-year universities. But at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, enrollment numbers are tracking similarly to last year, according to Assistant Vice Chancellor Chuck Cantrell.
"Enrollment tracking is far more an art than a science because there are so many influencing factors," Cantrell said in an email. " We do not know if we will see the same level of registrations during these final weeks that we saw in previous years. We are watching the numbers closely."
Rhea County High School graduate Hannah Kinzalow said she always knew she was good at math, but struggled in reading and writing, and this made her nervous to start college.
The 18-year-old heard about Chattanooga State's Bridge program through her Tennessee Promise mentor and decided to enroll.
The Bridge program allows students who need remedial courses as freshmen to take a three-week intensive tutoring session free of charge. Classes are taught by Chattanooga State instructors and help students with math, reading and writing. At the end of the course, students have the opportunity to test into regular classes.
"It would be a lot harder to come to college without this program," Kinzalow said. " This will make it easier to come here for my real classes."
Ben Sterling, an outreach coordinator with Tennessee Achieves, a nonprofit that partners with Tennessee Promise, drove down from Knoxville every day for three weeks to be with Bridge students.
"I am so proud of the 40 students who finished the Bridge program here today," Sterling said Friday. " We are constantly figuring out ways to help these students succeed."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.