About 60 members of the junior and senior classes at Red Bank High School are exceptionally fortunate. They intend to go to college and will do so just in time to take advantage of a brand-new program that will guarantee them free tuition and no fees.
The students heard all about the program—UT Promise—and their good fortune in having it come online as they prepare to enter college at a special, 7:30 a.m. meeting in their school library attended by a bevy of officials representing K-12 schools, higher education and state government.
UT Promise was introduced earlier this year as a last-dollar scholarship program—meaning it provides funds after all other available financial aid such as Pell grants, HOPE or institutional scholarships is received—for eligible students on any University of Tennessee campus. Qualifying students meet academic admission requirements and are from households with annual family income of less than $50,000.
“If you’re coming to UT and your family income is under $50,000, I have great news,” said interim UT President Randy Boyd. “If you can academically earn the right to come to UT Martin, UT Chattanooga or UT Knoxville, you can attend one of our universities free of tuition and fees.
“This is the first time in the history of the country that any university system has offered this, and we’re excited to be able to offer it in Tennessee.”
Boyd recalled working 12-hour shifts in a manufacturing plant on Saturdays and Sundays and going to classes the rest of the week as a first-generation university student who put himself through college. UTC Chancellor Steve Angle—also a first-generation graduate—told the students his mother was the reason he went to college.
“When I was in your position thinking about going to college, it was my mother who said, ‘No, you’re not going to be a truck driver. You’re going to go to college,’” Angle said.
“I thought I would be a veterinarian, and I talked to a couple of students and was going to major in biology. Then chemistry, my worst subject in high school and which I almost failed, ended up being my major and what I got a Ph.D. in, so you never know. Keep your mind open when you get to a university because you may find something you didn’t expect that will open a lot of doors.”
Just as important as UT Promise’s financial aid, Boyd said, is the program’s mentoring component to ensure aid recipients are successful students. University faculty or staff will serve as mentors for students in their first two years of college, then alumni and community mentors will step in to help undergraduates in their last two years of college with transitioning to success after graduation.
Tennessee Sen. Patsy Hazlewood, also a self-acknowledged first-generation college graduate, praised the program’s emphasis on mentoring.
“I’m excited about the opportunities that are being provided to students in Tennessee,” she said. “I look at you guys and see just a huge amount of potential. One of the most exciting things about being a representative is being able to help fund initiatives like this that you feel really make a difference in people’s lives.
“The money we’re talking about here—the dollars—that’s huge, but the most important thing I heard President Boyd talk about is the mentors. Having somebody who can walk you through, first, all the overwhelming paperwork with the FAFSA, having someone on campus making sure you know your way around; someone you can ask questions you think might be too silly to ask in public. This is a big gift that you’ve been handed, but you have to do some work to take advantage of it. Start tonight. Go to the website.”
Then Hazlewood led the assembled students through a recitation of the URL for the UT Promise website: UTPromise.tennessee.edu
Red Bank Principal Elaine Harper, also a UTC alumna, noted that she has been in her post for four years as of the current academic year and will see the first class of Red Bank seniors eligible to take advantage of UT Promise.
“I’ve been your principal for your whole time in high school, and I’m so excited that you’re the first group to get this opportunity for the UT Promise,” Harper said.
Boyd said he anticipated the gathered juniors and seniors would have multiple college opportunities and offered some advice for making their choices.
“Most of you probably have a lot of other options. You’re thinking maybe about other colleges across the state, maybe across the country, but you only want to go to a college that wants you, that welcomes you. You don’t want to go someplace where they don’t welcome you or they don’t really want you,” Boyd said.
“The only way to really know that they truly want you is if their president comes to your high school. So, when you’re making your list of all the schools you’d go to, start with the ones that had the president personally come and invite you, and exclude all the rest. Start ranking away. I’m the president of the University of Tennessee, and I want you to come to our university and I look forward to seeing you on campus next fall.”
Nov. 1 is the UT Promise application deadline. More at: UTPromise.tennessee.edu