At age 46, Allen Hunter decided to enroll at Chattanooga State Community College, determined to earn a degree.
"The first thing I've got to do is set expectations for my children," he said last week. "I went back to school to set an example for them."
Returning to school full time was a culture shock, Hunter said, but he recently earned computer support technician certification and is now working toward a two-year media technology degree. The hard work and long days at school are worth it, he added, because a degree will qualify him for a glut of jobs.
Hunter is one of more than 46,400 Hamilton County working-age residents who have earned some college credit but no degree and are now eligible to return to school for free thanks to Tennessee Reconnect.
"Economics have been an obstacle for people in the past," Hunter said. "Now there are no barriers."
Gov. Bill Haslam announced the program earlier this year, targeting the more than 900,000 working-age adults statewide who have some college credit but did not earn a degree, which is 25 percent of adults in Hamilton County. Reconnect leverages lottery money to provide last- dollar scholarships for people to attend the state's 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or any eligible institution offering an associate's degree.
The legislation builds upon Tennessee Promise, which was launched in 2014 and foots the bill for recent high school graduates to earn a two-year degree or certificate.
"We want to make a really loud and clear statement to everyone in Tennessee: 'No matter who you are, no matter what your education path has been in the past, no matter what your income level is, you can go to college for free in Tennessee,'" Haslam said in May while highlighting Reconnect at Motlow State Community College.
Reconnect is a part of the state's Drive to 55 initiative, through which Haslam set the lofty of goal of boosting the percentage of working-age residents with post-secondary degrees or certificates to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Right now, about 39 percent of the state's working-age population has earned degrees or certificates, and in Hamilton County 37.8 percent of adults have completed some education after graduating from high school, state data shows. The business community has repeatedly said there is a demand for a better-trained workforce, and most of the jobs arriving in Hamilton County paying more than $35,000 a year require a post-secondary degree or certificate, according to a recent report.
Rebecca Ashford, president of Chattanooga State, said the college is excited about Reconnect, as the program plays an important role in supporting the state's Drive to 55 and the work of Chattanooga 2.0.
Last year, Chattanooga 2.0 set two bold goals: increase the number of county residents with a post-secondary education to 75 percent and double the number of Hamilton County School graduates who earn a certificate or degree each year from 650 to 1,300 by 2025.
By the numbers:
Percentage of working-age residents with some college but no degree
Bledsoe County: 17.2 percent
Bradley County: 23.2 percent
Coffee County: 21.9 percent
Franklin County: 20.9 percent
Grundy County: 14.3 percent
Hamilton County: 25 percent
Marion County: 23.5 percent
McMinn County: 18.4 percent
Meigs County: 18.3 percent
Polk County: 19.7 percent
Rhea County: 19.4 percent
Sequatchie County: 22.1 percent
Source: Tennessee Higher Education Commission
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Chattanooga State Community College is holding a TN Reconnect Information Session today from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the Omniplex (OMNI) building, rooms 124/126 on the Main Campus located at 4501 Amnicola Highway. No reservations required.
To learn more about Reconnect, visit chattanoogastate.edu/tnreconnect or contact the Office of Adult Services at 423-697-4753. Veterans may call the Office of Veteran Affairs at 423-697-2509.
Jared Bigham, coordinator of Chattanooga 2.0, said the goal of having 75 percent of residents with a post-secondary degree or credential is not attainable if adults don't go back to school.
"Reconnect is one of the most powerful levers in our state right now," Bigham said.
Hamilton County received about $99,600 in Reconnect scholarship dollars last year, and adults who have never set foot on a college campus can use the program as well. There is limited funding for students the remainder of this year, but more funding is planned for the full expansion of the program in fall 2018.
Community colleges such as Chattanooga State are trying to make sure any adult can take advantage of the program, and are offering online and night classes for students so they can continue working.
That is going to be a huge help for Morgan Hastings, who is starting online courses at Chattanooga State this fall and finishing a business degree.
Hastings, 27, graduated from Red Bank High School a decade ago and tried working full time and attending college, but eventually had to stop because she was accumulating too much debt. Knowing she wanted to return to school and be the first in her family to earn a degree, Hastings reached out to Chattanooga State earlier this year and learned about Reconnect.
"I had never heard about it before," Hastings said Monday. "Reconnect makes it super easy as before there wasn't extra money for school."
Hastings plans to continue working full time while taking classes and hopes to finish her degree next year, knowing it will provide her with more opportunity to advance in her career.
"I'm super nervous and haven't been in school in four-and-a-half years," she said. " But I'm excited. I just think it will be really cool to have a degree."