Education Attainment Division

Tennessee Focuses on College Access to Address Labor Shortage

Jessie Azrilian on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at 3:00:00 pm

With a November 1 deadline approaching, high school seniors are signing up in droves for Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program. So far, over 35,000 students have applied for the landmark initiative which provides free tuition to the state’s two-year community colleges. Tennessee is the first state to offer free college tuition without income or academic requirements, and the program has already exceeded its goal of enrolling 20,000 seniors.

Through Tennessee Promise high school seniors apply for state and federal financial aid, and the state will fill the remaining balance of their tuition. Students can apply the program to any of Tennessee’s tech colleges, community colleges, or any public or private 4-year university that offers an associate’s degree. Students are required to complete a FAFSA, attend mandatory meetings through their senior year, and complete at least eight hours of community service each semester while in college. The program’s estimated cost is $34 million per year, which will be covered by an endowment created by the state Assembly as well as excess lottery reserve funds.  

The business community is taking heed of this program aimed to match students’ skills with projected future workforce demands- skills developed at career technical and community colleges. The Tennessean reports that in the past week business leaders from all across the country, primarily from chambers of commerce, have called the Governor’s office inquiring about the program.

In Tennessee, chambers have been on the forefront of increasing education attainment as an economic development driver.

  • The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is focused on boosting higher education attainment to address a massive predicted labor shortage in the next decade. The chamber leads the Nashville region’s Vital Signs initiative, which convenes education and economic development leaders to connect education programs with employers’ workforce needs. They are working on a regional strategy that supports the Tennessee Promise program as well as encourages working adults to complete un-finished degree programs.
  • The Knoxville Chamber, through its SpeakUp4Biz campaign, advocated for the Tennessee General Assembly to pass the bill that would fund the Tennessee Promise program at no additional cost to the state.
  • The Kingsport Chamber began its focus on higher education as an economic development priority through a city-led effort called “Educate and Grow,” which offers scholarships to Northeast State Technical Community College (NESTCC) for any city high school graduate meeting entrance requirements. The program was adopted county-wide and became the model for the Tennessee Promise.

While the Governor's college access initiative is unprecedented, the application requirement that students complete a FAFSA form excludes a group that will comprise a substantial portion of Tennessee's future workforce- undocumented students. The FAFSA requirement ensures that this “last dollar” scholarship program remains affordable- students receive the maximum amount of financial aid based on their eligibility, and the state fills in the remaining balance. Undocumented students are unable to provide the social security number necessary to fill out the form, and are ineligible to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise

With enrollment rates surpassing expectations, it’s predicted that two-thirds of Tennessee's eligible graduating seniors will go to college in 2015. The workforce pipeline does not end with attainment, and the next step will be to track how many students complete degree programs and move on to gainful employment. Local industry leaders will be a useful ally to inform community colleges about the skills college students will need to fill available jobs. 

To learn more about how chambers are impacting higher education attainment visit the Higher Education Chamberpedia page.

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