Courtesy of Northeast State Community College

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.

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