35,000 Tennessee Students Apply for Free Community College

October 14, 2014 AT 10:40 AM

If there's a single moment that has best captured the rush to attend community college for free in Tennessee, it probably came at Motlow State last month.

The Lynchburg, Tenn., school held what it called "Scholarship Saturday." In just four hours, more than 1,300 students signed up for Tennessee Promise, the new program led by Gov. Bill Haslam that gives Tennessee's high school seniors free tuition at the state's two-year community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

Forty-five minutes before the doors even opened for the one-stop application outing, a line was already meandering out the door of the school's library.

"It looked like kids waiting to get into a Justin Bieber concert," said Mike Krause, who is working out of the governor's office to lead the initiative to increase the number of college graduates to 55 percent of the adult population by 2025. "But it was kids waiting to sign up for Tennessee Promise."

With the Nov. 1 deadline to apply approaching, it's now crunch time for a program that has already attracted 35,016 applications from high school students across the state. That has put Tennessee Promise on pace to perhaps double the state's goal of 20,000 applications.

That means two-thirds of the 60,000 public high school seniors in Tennessee could eventually sign up for a program that has garnered national attention.

Word about Tennessee's experiment — it's the first state in nearly three decades to offer free commitment college tuition — has other states watching and learning. In just the past week, Haslam's office has talked with leaders, primarily from chambers of commerce from Indiana, Nevada, California and Florida about the program.

The real test, of course, is how many more diplomas it eventually produces, a question that won't get answered for a few more years.

Tennessee Promise, pushed by Haslam and approved by the General Assembly this past spring, taps the state's lottery reserves to cover the costs of providing free tuition.

For Krause, the push is twofold. He has crisscrossed the state, putting 2,809 miles on his car over the past three weeks to get the word out, county by county.

One is attracting more Tennessee Promise applicants in counties where they are low. In Middle Tennessee that includes Rutherford, Robertson, Cheatham and Williamson. The other focus is increasing the number of voluntary "mentors," a critical piece of the program.

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