Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam is offering high school graduates a full scholarship at two-year colleges within the state.
Haslam created the program in hopes of diminishing the issue of affordability in college attendance.
"We don't want anyone to say, "I'd like to go to college, but can't afford it,'" he said.
The program, "Tennessee Promise", offers free tuition at a community college or technical school within the state to any student who works with a mentor and completes eight hours of community service per year. Upon completion of the two-year program, those who wish may continue their degree program at a four-year college entering as a junior.
While community colleges around the state are expecting an increase in student capacity, budget cuts have reduced the amount of funding available to post-secondary institutions, meaning even school improvements must be put on hold.
Haslam plans on paying for the program, which is expected to cost the state $34 million each year, by using $300 million in excess state lottery funds as well as an additional $47 million endowment from the state's $400 million it has in reserves. The remaining $100 million from the lottery funds will still apply to the Hope scholarship program.
"It does create a whole different culture over time that students know that they can go to college," Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said. "And that changes the discussion, and I think will lead to many more students going to college."
The initiative is part of Haslam's "Drive to 55" campaign, which he hopes will raise graduation rates within the state from 32% presently to 55% by 2025. He believes doing so will improve job qualifications as well as draw new employers to the state.
Education officials have just released ACT scores for the state. The composite score showed the largest gain in over a decade, going from 19.0 to 19.3 in public schools. When private schools were taken into account, the scores rose from 19.5 to 19.8.
According to Haslam, the gain proves that those who apply for his program will be able to make the most out 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."
Enrollment for the program opened last week. So far, more than 1,000 students have applied. The application deadline is November 1.
Haslam is reaching the conclusion of his first term as governor of Tennessee. Formerly the mayor of Knoxville, the 56-year-old Republican looks well on his way to a second term, holding a 25-point lead over Democratic challenger Charlie Brown in the latest poll information according to RealClearPolitics.