NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday urged students to take advantage of his program to cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate.
The Republican governor has been visiting several schools throughout the state and wrapped up his trip on Wednesday at Antioch High School in southeastern Davidson County.
Haslam told a packed auditorium of students that he doesn't want affordability to be a reason why a person doesn't attend college.
"We don't want anyone to say, 'I'd like to go to college, but can't afford it,'" he said.
Called "Tennessee Promise," the free tuition plan requires students to work with a mentor and complete eight hours of community service a year.
The program is a cornerstone of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign to improve the state's graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 in order to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.
After graduation, students who choose to attend a four-year school will be able to do so as juniors.
Before speaking to students in the auditorium, Haslam had a round-table discussion with several students and school administrators. Most of the students acknowledged affordability was an issue for them and their friends, and said Tennessee Promise would be beneficial.
Some students are worried about going into debt, said senior Leah Vanderbush, who plans to enroll in the program. "So I think this two-year program really will motivate them to go to college for two years for free."
The application period for the program opened last Friday. So far, more than 1,000 students have applied. The deadline is Nov. 1.
Haslam has said he wants to pay for the program, expected to cost about $34 million annually, by using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and join it with a $47 million endowment. The state has about $400 million in reserves.
For those students who want to further their education, Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said Tennessee Promise gives them a sense of assurance.
"It does create a whole different culture over time that students know that they can go to college," he said. "And that changes the discussion, and I think will lead to many more students going to college."
Earlier Wednesday, state education officials released the latest ACT test results, which showed Tennessee's composite score had its largest gain in more than a decade. The state's composite score for public school students rose from 19.0 to 19.3. For all students, including those attending private school, the average composite score increased from 19.5 to 19.8. ACT officials said that is statistically significant, particularly for a state that administers the test to all students.
Haslam said the gain is encouraging because it's an indication that students who apply for his program will be able to make the most of it.
"One of the critical things is not just to get students to apply and get in, but to have them actually complete," he said. "And there's a way better chance of completing if they're prepared when they get there."