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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Haslam's efforts to persuade more Tennesseans to get a postsecondary education appear to be paying off.
Recent enrollment figures show high interest in three programs the Republican governor launched as part of his "Drive to 55" initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate beyond high school from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 in order to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.
Of the state's 74,000 high school graduates, 58,000 have applied for the program that offers free tuition at any of the state's 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology. More than 38,000 of the applicants have filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
The other two programs are geared toward adults. A push to provide free tuition at the state's technology colleges has received 8,000 applicants, and a nonprofit online university that offers a competency-based degree program has an enrollment of 2,000 — a nearly 200 percent growth rate since it was launched in 2013.
"The state's ability to attract and retain business is tied directly to the quality of our workforce," Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said in an email to The Associated Press. "We know that reaching high school graduates won't be enough. Gov. Haslam believes we must find ways for adults to return to higher education."
Haslam traversed the state promoting his free tuition program for high school graduates called Tennessee Promise, and did the same for the adult program — Tennessee Reconnect — after his more ambitious legislative proposals like Medicaid expansion failed in the Legislature.
All of the education proposals have received bipartisan support among lawmakers. In the case of the free tuition plan for adults, the Senate during the last month of the recent session unanimously approved the measure among a list of bills OK'd without debate.
Some higher education officials initially expressed concerns about the cost of Tennessee Promise and how it might affect students at four-year institutions, but most concerns have waned in favor of the initiative.
A recent analysis from Bellwether Education Partners shows that because of Tennessee Promise, the number of Tennessee students to file a FAFSA jumped from 49 to 61 percent — ahead of all other states.
"Completing the FAFSA ensures students have access to a wide range of financial resources, and it's exciting to see so many Tennessee families poised to receive assistance and enter college," said Mike Krause, who oversees Tennessee Promise.
While it's not free, the state's online university, WGU Tennessee, is also seeing high numbers mainly because of the convenience it offers adults with busy schedules.
The program, a partnership between the state and nationally recognized Western Governors University, allows students to work on a bachelor's or master's degree at their own pace on subject matters developed from employer input. Students move forward by demonstrating mastery of the material.
Memphis resident Joe Turner is in the program and plans to graduate with an MBA in strategy and management later this month. The 32-year-old, who works full time with the state, said he appreciates the flexibility the program offers, as well as the real-world experience woven into the courses.
"It's exciting," Turner said. "I feel like I can walk into a company tomorrow and ... know how to do this."
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