This Nonprofit Demystifies Higher Education in Tennessee

By Laura Pochodylo

For some, returning to classes is a sign of Fall as sure as the leaves changing colors. But for many, the guarantee to be able to attend school, especially post-secondary education, is not a certainty.

Only 32.9 percent of Tennesseans hold a post-secondary degree. In 2008, a small group of people in Knoxville set to change that number by launching tnAchieves, an educational nonprofit organization. In the years since, the organization has partnered with the state government to revolutionize access to community college and technical schools statewide by removing the most imposing barrier: cost.

tnAchieves originally launched as a privately funded, last-dollar scholarship for community and technical schools in eastern Tennessee’s Knox County. Last-dollar scholarships are named as such because they cover a student’s tuition costs at a qualifying institution down to the “last dollar,” after other grants and scholarships. Because of this, 94 percent of tnAchieves graduates report completing their post-secondary degrees debt-free. Tennessee now also leads the country in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) filing.

The tnAchieves program soon expanded outside of Knox County and partnered with Governor Bill Haslam’s office to create the statewide scholarship called Tennessee Promise. Funds now come from other sources, like the Tennessee Lottery, to make the opportunity available to all graduating seniors who qualify for the program.

tnAchieves now serves as the partner organization to Tennessee Promise, executing the management of volunteers and the logistics of the program in 85 counties in Tennessee, including Nashville’s Davidson county. The organization’s efforts account for the annual success of more than 60,000 students who otherwise would have difficulty financing and attending college.

Remarking on the program’s success with increased enrollment in a drive for more mentors, Governor Haslam said, “It’s clear Tennessee Promise is changing the conversation around going to college in Tennessee.”

With any outstanding balance taken care of, students are able to focus on the other barriers that complicate their paths to post-secondary education. Many tnAchieves students are first-generation college students, meaning they are the first person in their family to earn a degree. Intricacies of the college experience that many students are assumed to know—such as the differences of relating to a college professor versus a high school teacher, how to manage the varying schedule of college courses, or when to file for FAFSA—are often uncharted territory to those who don’t have a first-hand example in their lives to learn from.

This is where more than 7,500 volunteer mentors come in. College-graduated Tennesseans are paired with a small group of Tennessee Promise students to share their knowledge about the often challenging transition from high school to college and to guide them through the program requirements.

Students remain eligible for Tennessee Promise by upholding a GPA of 2.0 or higher and completing eight hours of community service per term enrolled in the scholarship program. Mentors keep their students on track towards these goals by informing them of academic support and tutoring at their institutions, and often volunteering alongside their mentees at state parks, food banks and more.

The broader adoption of the last-dollar scholarship that tnAchieves started regionally is part of a statewide initiative called Drive to 55. Drive to 55’s goal is to increase the 32.9 percent of college educated Tennesseans to 55 percent by 2025 by providing access to education and improving college readiness and retention rates.

More than 16,000 students in the tnAchieves-supported class of 2015 created an impressive 24 percent increase in full-time students at community colleges and a 20 percent increase in students at Tennessee’s technical schools.

While many might look to the traditional innovation hubs of Silicon Valley or New York City for success in transforming education, the true educational innovators are right in our backyard in Tennessee, helping fellow Tennesseans reach their full potential.

Leave a Comment