Caitlin McLawhorn could nev­er have gone to col­lege, she says, without the free tu­ition she re­ceived to at­tend com­munity col­lege first and to earn an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree.

Grow­ing up as the daugh­ter of a single moth­er, money was al­ways tight in McLawhorn’s house­hold in East Ten­ness­ee. Her fath­er left the fam­ily eight years ago, and her moth­er, who didn’t fin­ish col­lege, sup­por­ted her two chil­dren on her salary as a low-level of­fice work­er in Oak Ridge, out­side of Knoxville. Col­lege—even if it was a goal—seemed far away from the classrooms of McLawhorn’s rur­al high school.

But in 2010, McLawhorn’s guid­ance coun­selors told her about a pro­gram called Ten­ness­ee Achieves, which al­lows any loc­al high-school stu­dent to at­tend community col­lege for free. The only caveats? Stu­dents must main­tain a C-average and at­tend com­munity col­lege for con­sec­ut­ive semesters. They also must per­form eight hours of com­munity ser­vice each semester and meet regularly with a vo­lun­teer ment­or (usu­ally, a pro­fes­sion­al in the com­munity) who can help the stu­dent re­main on track.

McLawhorn filled out the ap­plic­a­tion and, by 2011, found her­self en­rolled in Pellis­sippi State Com­munity Col­lege in Knoxville, where she stud­ied lit­er­at­ure and even­tu­ally earned her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree. “I would have had no chance to go without this pro­gram,” she says now, just months away from earn­ing a full-fledged bach­el­or’s de­gree. “It is so sur­real to achieve something that I nev­er thought I could in my life.”

The pro­gram ori­gin­ated in Knoxville in 2008. A brainchild of the city’s may­or, Bill Haslam, a Re­pub­lic­an who is now Ten­ness­ee’s gov­ernor, it was in­ten­ded as a work­force-de­vel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ive to cre­ate a bet­ter-edu­cated class of loc­al workers. After dig­ging in­to loc­al edu­ca­tion stat­ist­ics, city of­fi­cials real­ized that a third of Knoxville’s gradu­at­ing high-school seni­ors didn’t pur­sue any type of high­er edu­ca­tion, in­clud­ing cre­den­tial or tech­nic­al school­ing. They came mainly from low-in­come fam­il­ies in which no one else had at­ten­ded col­lege. Many had mediocre grades in high school and re­quired re­medi­al classes.

The im­petus for Ten­ness­ee Achieves was Knoxville of­fi­cials’ de­sire to give these stu­dents a chance for more edu­ca­tion. The fund­ing ori­gin­ally came from sev­en private donors, not­ably Randy Boyd, the founder and ex­ec­ut­ive chair­man of a com­pany that makes elec­tron­ic fences for pets. The $1.2 mil­lion he donated and raised, com­bined with the may­or’s staff and man­power, formed a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship to get Ten­ness­ee Achieves off the ground.

By the fall of 2009, the pro­gram helped 287 Ten­ness­ee stu­dents en­roll in community col­lege, aided by 181 vo­lun­teer ment­ors. The fund­ing covered all tu­ition ex­penses, so that stu­dents such as McLawhorn could fin­ish com­munity col­lege debt-free. “The fund­ing is very crit­ic­al to the con­ver­sa­tion,” says Krissy DeAle­jandro, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Ten­ness­ee Achieves (or tnAchieves, as the organ­iz­a­tion calls it­self on its web­site). “It is the car­rot that brings the kids to the table, but it is the ment­or­ing and oth­er sup­ports that truly define suc­cess.” A third of these ori­gin­al stu­dents gradu­ated with­in three years.

The Knoxville pro­gram in­tro­duced so many ad­di­tion­al stu­dents to the community-col­lege sys­tem that Haslam, elec­ted gov­ernor in 2010, ex­pan­ded it last fall in­to a statewide gov­ern­ment ini­ti­at­ive called Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise. Its $361 mil­lion en­dow­ment, gen­er­ated by the state lot­tery funds, en­ables stu­dents to at­tend any of the state’s 13 com­munity col­leges, 27 tech­nic­al col­leges, or four-year in­sti­tu­tions that of­fer as­so­ci­ate’s de­grees. Of­fi­cials es­tim­ate that 16,000 to 18,000 in­com­ing stu­dents will at­tend com­munity col­lege in Ten­ness­ee this academ­ic year thanks to the pro­gram.

Com­munity col­leges across Ten­ness­ee have braced for this in­flux. One of them is North­east State Com­munity Col­lege, in Bloun­tville, which an­ti­cip­ates en­roll­ment will double this fall. The school hired ad­di­tion­al fac­ulty and ad­ded classes, especially for its most pop­u­lar pro­grams, such as ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing, welding, auto­mot­ives, and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Roughly half of North­east State’s stu­dents even­tu­ally trans­fer to a four-year school. But even for stu­dents who stop with an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree or cer­ti­fic­ate, the ex­pos­ure to com­munity col­lege can be in­valu­able, ac­cord­ing to Janice Gilliam, the school’s pres­id­ent. “We have a lot of stu­dents who do not think about go­ing to col­lege. Some of their par­ents have not even fin­ished high school. This is a huge step to break this cycle,” she says. “A lot of them don’t even know they have tal­ent.”

The vo­lun­teer ment­ors are a cru­cial ele­ment that dis­tin­guishes Ten­ness­ee Promise from or­din­ary schol­ar­ship pro­grams. The ment­ors check in with students weekly, wheth­er by text mes­sage, phone, or in per­son. They help students nav­ig­ate the bur­eau­cracy of a com­munity-col­lege sys­tem, which can be for­eign to first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents.

“I had com­pletely taken for gran­ted what know­ledge of the col­lege-ad­mis­sions pro­cess means,” says Owen Driskill, who has worked as a ment­or for the past seven years. “I had a mom and dad who talked about col­lege and knew how the pro­cess works. You just see how big a dif­fer­ence it makes to ment­or stu­dents and help them trans­late all of these steps and pro­cesses.”

The goal is for 55 per­cent of Ten­nesseans to hold some type of high­er-edu­ca­tion cre­den­tial by 2025, says Mike Krause, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Ten­ness­ee Prom­ise. Cur­rently, just 34 per­cent of state res­id­ents have a col­lege cre­den­tial.

This means op­por­tun­it­ies for stu­dents who might oth­er­wise have taken less­er career paths. After earn­ing her as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree and liv­ing at home to save money, McLawhorn trans­ferred to Maryville Col­lege, a small, four-year private school in East Ten­ness­ee. She has lived on cam­pus, worked as a res­id­ent ad­viser, and ma­jored in writ­ing and com­mu­nic­a­tions, with a minor in busi­ness.

Now 21 years old, McLawhorn ex­pects to gradu­ate in Decem­ber and hopes to move to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to lobby for poor fam­il­ies in high­er edu­ca­tion. It’s an in­spir­ing am­bi­tion for a young Ten­nessean who had not an­ti­cip­ated such a ca­reer—or chance in life—for her­self.