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.”