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.”