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Tenn. students must do community service to attend college for free


Tennessee students now have an opportunity to attend community college for free through the Tennessee Promise program.

The Tennessee Promise — which is a combination of a scholarship and mentoring program — will allot $34 million to eligible students and cover the remaining tuition and fees not covered by federal and state grants. Per the program website: “Students may use the scholarship at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institution offering an associate’s degree program.”

Here’s the catch — in order to be eligible for the program, students must complete eight hours of community service by Aug. 1, 2015.

RELATED: Oregon Senate passes bill to offer free community college next year

But out of the 31,000 students eligible for the program, only 28% have completed the hours, according to Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Promise.

“This is probably because of the combination that it’s summer and the deadline is Aug. 1,” Krause says. “Kids in the summer tend to be a bit more busy. Obviously, there’s some procrastination that comes into play, but we’re seeing the numbers increase daily and I think we’ll be where we need to be by Aug. 1.”

Community college campuses opened across the state on June 11, 2015 for students to fulfill their community service hours, Krause says. Parks will also open on July 18 for students to complete the hours.

Sabrina Cornejo — who plans to study business administration at Volunteer State Community College — tells USA TODAY College that she did her community service hours at Critter Clinic in Gallatin, Tenn. She previously worked as a veterinarian assistant in a full-time position for two and a half years, but had to leave the clinic for a better opportunity at Lowe’s.

Over the course of three Saturdays, Cornejo walked, fed and medicated cats and dogs. She also thoroughly sanitized their kennels.

“It wasn’t hard, since I had experience in the field, but it gave me a wonderful time to reconnect with my babies — even the snappy ones,” Cornejo says.

Geraldine Hernandez — who plans to study to become a registered nurse at Nashville State Community College — says she obtained community service hours through the Red Cross at Glencliff High School in Nashville, Tenn. Hernandez was instructed to manage the blood drive by recruiting blood donors, which took about a week. Hernandez then conducted the blood drive for the day.

“This was my typical day when I volunteered to run the blood drives,” she said in an email. “I had previously volunteered for the past two years and, because of that, my hours were more attainable.”

RELATED: Bernie Sanders issues bill to make 4-year colleges tuition-free

“If you’re going to receive free college, we think it’s pretty fair to ask students to perform eight hours of community service per semester,” Krause says.

He adds that students who stay engaged outside of the classroom tend to have higher rates of completion compared to those who do not participate in community service. The communities also benefit from the service.

“We haven’t done the math yet, but tens of thousands of community service hours will have been completed,” he says. “This represents students being able to go out and learn more about their communities and to give back.”

Hernandez says that the main benefit for the program is the chance to have her education covered “if, in any case, something goes wrong with a four-year college.” She also says she enjoys the mentoring aspect of the program.

“During the mandatory meetings, we have the chance to speak in person with the mentors at our school,” Hernandez says. “This is an even greater benefit because most students don’t have transportation to go to other locations to meet. My father works very late and, when I have to attend the meetings, I always stay after school and wait until it is time for the meetings. The entire meeting is clear and the handbook that is given answers most questions that have.”

The Tennessee Promise, which was signed into law May 13, 2014, will have its first cohort start college in four weeks, Krause says.

He adds that the program is based off of Knox Achieves, a program that lasted seven years and was available to all graduating seniors in 23 counties in Tennessee. The privately funded program gave an average of $971 in scholarships to students in the 2012-2013 academic year after all eligible grants and scholarships were applied.

The biggest hope for the Tennessee Promise, Krause says, was to change the conversation about going to college in Tennessee.

“With so many students applying, they’ve had intentional conversations with their families about higher education,” he says.

According to Krause, another goal the program met was to increase registration for FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As of May 1, 2015, Tennessee was the first in the nation for FAFSA completion, jumping from 49% to 61%.

“We want to make sure that college is a reality for Tennessee students,” Krause says.

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