A record number of Tennessee high school seniors have applied to the state’s tuition-free community college program, requiring a record number of volunteers to help those students achieve their goals.
About 61,000 seniors applied by this week’s deadline for Tennessee Promise, the state’s pioneering program to get more students to attend in-state community or technical colleges. That’s up from almost 60,000 last year and about 58,000 in 2014, when the program launched.
Nearly 8,650 of this year’s applicants were from Shelby County, an increase of about 4 percent from last year.
But students aren’t enough to make the program work. The state needs 9,000 more volunteers to mentor applicants as they transition from high school to college.
“With this record number of applicants and a number of other indicators, it’s clear that Tennessee Promise is changing the conversation around going to college in Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in a press release. “But we don’t just want students to apply to college; we want them to succeed in college and graduate.”
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Haslam appealed to the Volunteer State for volunteers to step forth as mentors.
“The time commitment is small, but the impact can be life changing for students across our state and in your community,” he said.
Research shows that mentor relationships help students not only enroll in college, but finish.
Only two of Tennessee’s 95 counties — Hawkins and Grundy — have enough mentors to serve all of their applicants. Shelby County needs upward of 900 volunteers, said Krissy DeAlejandro, director of TNAchieves, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the scholarship program.
When Tennessee Promise launched in 2014, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to offer two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees. Even as the state struggles with college preparedness, it’s seen a boost in community college enrollment. The program aims to make college accessible to all Tennessee students, regardless of income.
Mentors must be at least 21 years old and attend a one-hour training and two one-hour meetings with their students over the course of a year. On average, mentors spend about an hour a month working with three to seven students as they transition from high school to college, reminding them of important deadlines, encouraging them, and serving as a trusted resource. The deadline to apply as a mentor is Nov. 20.