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Tuition plan promises big changes for schools

Tennessee Promise, which pledges two years of free community college or college of applied technology education absolutely free, could very likely change the face of local post-secondary education.
Under the program, graduating seniors could attend a community college or college of applied technology – such as Northeast State Community College or the Tennessee College of Applied Technology – and have tuition and fees paid for two years.
“Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education, and we are raising our expectations as a state,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said. “We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”
To participate, students must graduate from high school, agree to work with a mentor, complete eight hours of community service and maintain a 2.0 grade point average during their two years at a community college or college of applied technology.
After graduating from a community college, students can choose to attend a four-year school, and the credits from the community college will transfer towards the total degree credits at the four-year college.
The Tennessee Promise program is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” program aimed at increasing the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. In 11 years, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree to get a job; today, only 32 percent of Tennesseans qualify.
Chris Hitechew, director of Northeast State Community College at Elizabethton, said the new program would likely bring in more students to the community college and the Elizabethton campus.
“If you look at the numbers in Carter County, 92 percent of students graduate high school, but less than 50 percent go on to college,” Hitechew said. “You can’t help but think it is because of the cost.”
Currently, the Elizabethton Northeast State campus has a little under 500 students enrolled. Hitechew said enrollment numbers are projected to increase to 600 to 650 students after Tennessee promise takes effect in 2015.
Northeast State at Elizabethton is not the only local higher education facility expecting an increase in students.
Mike Cole, student service coordinator at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton, said the school believes there will be more students seeking an education from TCATE as the program takes effect.
“This will be beneficial to our students,” Cole said. “It will help them, having the money that they would have been paying in tuition to use for other expenses, like transportation and supplies. When gas was up to around $4 a gallon, I had some students call and tell me they just couldn’t afford to drive to school. Having the tuition paid for two years will definitely be a big plus for them.”
Hitechew said the Elizabethton campus sees many students from Johnson County and the outlying areas of Carter County who choose the school because of its location.
“When driving from Johnson County or from Roan Mountain, it is a long drive to our Blountville campus,” he said. “Students come here. It is closer and they get the same quality education and the same smaller class sizes.”
Not all students are going to see an increase in tuition coverage from the state because of the Tennessee Promise program. Students who attend a four-year college will see their state funding through the Hope Scholarship reduced by $500 each semester for the first two years from $4,000 to $3,000 annually.
However, the students would see that number increased from $4,000 to $5,000 each year for their last two years at the four-year institution, which equals an additional $500 each semester for those two years.
Milligan College Vice-President for Enrollment Management and Marketing Lee Fierbaugh said this was something that will impact students at all four-year colleges and universities in the state. She said Milligan College did not offer two-year degrees, and would not be included in the Tennessee Promise program
“We support education across the board, and we do support the general idea of making education more accessible for students,” Fierbaugh said. “All four-year institutions have struggled with the shuffling of funds away from those students at a four-year college. We absolutely support the ‘Drive to 55’ program. We are all on the same team together. We are all a big part of achieving that goal.”
Fierbaugh said it was likely the program would impact enrollment at Milligan College, but that is yet to be seen because Tennessee Promise has not begun.
“It comes down to if the students make the choice to attend a two-year school first and then transfer to a four-year school,” she said. “It has to do with the ability of the student to select the school that is the best fit for them.”
Hitechew said many students already choose to attend community college such as Northeast State before transferring to a four-year school. He said the classes transfer and the credits apply toward the four-year degree.
“Tennessee Promise is a win-win,” he said. “It will help students get an education, whether it is at a community college or a technical college. Being able to work with a mentor is very important. It is a huge step to go from high school to college. One of the biggest benefits in attending a community college is that it builds the student’s confidence. They learn that they can do this, that they can go to college.”
With an increase in students expected, the schools are now preparing to make sure they are ready when the students start to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise.
Cole said TCAT in Elizabethton is currently in the midst of moving into a new 95,000-square-foot facility. The facility was planned to offer more room for classes and to have all of the TCAT courses in one place before the Tennessee Promise plan was announced.
“This is going to help us with any growth that happens,” Cole said. “It turned out to be pretty good timing.”
Hitechew said the Northeast State at Elizabethton campus is also working on finishing some expansion projects that were started before Tennessee Promise began. The college is expanding the teaching site to include more biology labs, which will be helpful to house more students who will likely be taking the classes.
He said the school was also considering an expansion of the Learning Resource Center at the Elizabethton campus. The center is a combination library and computer lab where students go to work on class work and projects.
“We are looking to double that space by Fall 2015 so we will have the space for more computers,” Hitechew said. “This will give more Internet access for students who might not have that at home.”
He said the school is also making sure enough courses will be offered to cover all the students needs and that there are enough qualified teachers on staff to take over those classes. He said school staff are also working with local high schools and middle school students to help them plan for their future.
“I am excited,” Hitechew said. “This is not about Northeast State. This is about giving kids the opportunity to further their education here in Carter County. It is going to impact the lives of high school graduates in a positive way.”