University of Tennessee to launch free college program that mirrors successful Promise, Reconnect programs

Jason Gonzales
The Tennessean

Thousands of Tennessee students soon will be able to attend a University of Tennessee school free of tuition and fees through a new initiative modeled after the state's popular Promise program.

University of Tennessee system interim President Randy Boyd announced the UT Promise program on Thursday at the annual State of UT address in Nashville.

The program will cover tuition and fees for students with a household income of less than $50,000 a year.

Boyd said the UT Promise program will begin in fall 2020 and will ensure the university continues to fulfill its founding mission to provide a gateway to success for Tennessee's low-income and middle-class residents.

"This gives us a great way to market the University of Tennessee," Boyd said. "This isn't a school just for the wealthy or the elite. This is a school for everyone."

The program mirrors the already popular Tennessee Promise and Reconnect programs, which provide scholarships for high school seniors and adults to attend technical or community college free of tuition and fees.

Students will be able to use UT Promise if they attend an undergraduate program at one of the system's campuses. Students must be a recipient of the state's HOPE scholarship, and the university would cover the tuition and fee costs after all other grants and federal aid are taken into account.

Students will be matched with volunteer mentors and will complete four hours of service learning each semester.  

"Everyone will be matched with a mentor — alumni, faculty or graduate student — someone that cares about them and will help them be successful," Boyd said.

Current, incoming and transfer students will make up the 2020 class of UT Promise recipients, Boyd said.

The university will initially fund the program with money from internal savings and other sources. The university already has the authority to create scholarship programs and does not need the board or legislature's approval to launch UT Promise. 

At the same time, the UT Foundation will embark on a fundraising campaign during the next five years to create an endowment to fund the program long term, Boyd said. 

It is unclear how much it will cost the University of Tennessee system. Boyd said he expects to know in the next couple of months how much the endowment will need to raise.

Boyd, an architect of Tennessee Promise, said UT Promise helps extend opportunities for Tennessee residents and is an initiative he has been thinking about for about six months.

And it is meant to cut down the overall debt of students leaving the school. Currently, 46 percent of UT students graduate without debt.  

Boyd said the system isn't projecting any one campus would see an enrollment spike.

"We think this will create that pathway to hope and prosperity for everyone throughout the state," Boyd said. "We think this will help everyone succeed."

The program could have an impact on other four-year institutions in the state.

This would be the first wide-scale program for free college at a public four-year institution in Tennessee, possibly making competition for students more difficult at schools such as the University of Memphis.

University of Memphis President M. David Rudd, who has focused on removing access barriers for students, noted in a text message the higher level of state funding for the UT system than the U of M. 

"Give us comparable funding and I'll do it tomorrow," Rudd said of such a program. 

But Boyd is hopeful the program will provide more access and opportunity for all Tennesseans. He said the program will help fulfill the state's goal of getting 55 percent of its residents to have a degree or certificate by 2025.

"This is one way we can change the culture of expectations in the state of Tennessee," Boyd said. "Parents and grandparents can say, 'You can go to college. Dream bigger. Dream differently, because you can. You can go to college and have a great life.'"

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Reporter Jennifer Pignolet contributed.

Reach Jason Gonzales at and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.