Astawusegne Desalegne is a senior at Kingsbury High School with big dreams, “I would like to be the first generation in my family to go to college,” he said. “Make my dad proud.”
He already has a four-year college picked out—Middle Tennessee State University, or MTSU. Desalegne feels MTSU is more cloistered than other schools he has considered. “I like this picture of a circle and the buildings inside of it. There is nothing but the university. I feel like UT Knoxville is too spread out,” Desalegne said. “MTSU is one place only for MTSU.”
But he says he realized he couldn’t pay for it. So, he enrolled in Tennessee Achieves. He now plans to attend Southwest Tennessee Community College for two years. At community college, Tennessee Achieves will foot the entire bill for whatever tuition costs government grants don’t cover. Tennessee Achieves also set him up with a mentor, a counselor at Southwest named John Berger.
“They told me in order to get to the top, you’ve got to know someone there. So, having John Berger is a great thing,” Desalegne said.
He still plans to go to Middle Tennessee State University for two years. After completing Community College, he says he’ll transfer his credits, effectively halving the price of his education.
Across the state, Tennessee Achieves has helped thousands of high school seniors attend community college free of charge. Like Desalegne, most of Tennessee Achieves’ students are the first in their family to go to college, and most come from families with less than $50,000 in annual income.
Tennessee Achieves began in Knox County in 2009. The Shelby County branch of the operation is in its second year, and on a recent Tuesday, the Shelby County coordinator Kaci Murely asked a group of students gathered in the cafeteria of Bolton High School to clap if they’d filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. More than one hundred students applauded.
There is no income, grade, or ACT score requirement to receive money from Tennessee Achieves. Every public school student in Shelby County qualifies. All students have to do is attend meetings, like the one in the Bolton cafeteria, apply for financial aid from the state and the federal government, and complete the steps necessary to enroll in community college.
After their financial aid comes through, Tennessee Achieves will pay the balance owed to the community college for each student. “So when the bill comes, it’s going to look different for all of you,” Murley explained to the group in the Bolton cafeteria. “Remember, I told you guys you’re not going to get a check from Tennessee Achieves—$3,000, to Misha, love always …. We pay the money directly to the school.”
Tennessee Achieves Founder Randy Boyd said when he started the program, he thought money was going to be the biggest barrier to getting students enrolled in community college, but he quickly realized he was wrong, and in fact the program’s mentors make a huge difference.
“Our Executive Director always uses this one example, of one of her students who called her up on his first day of college, and he was very frustrated because he couldn’t find where his MWF class was,” Boyd said. “She explained to him, ‘Oh, that just means Monday, Wednesday, Friday. That’s the days that you are supposed to be at the class and you are there on the wrong day. If he didn’t have anyone else to call, he probably would have gotten frustrated and left.”
Boyd is also the CEO of Radio Systems, a pet company. He uses his company’s profits to pay the salaries of Tennessee Achieves’ staff. But the money for the student scholarships is raised in each of the counties where the program operates. Boyd says only one thing surprised him about collecting donations.
“You know, how easy it was,” Boyd said. “I’d like to say that was just brilliant salesmanship, but the fact is that people just get it. And they understand that we need to do something significant, and they’re willing to step up.
Boyd is a special advisor to Governor Bill Haslam on issues of higher education. He’s tasked with helping Haslam raise the college graduation rate in Tennessee from around 30 percent to 55 percent by 2025. To hear an interview with Boyd click here.