Dr. Bill Seymour, the college’s president, said during a speech at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly “Food for Thought” luncheon on Thursday that he and Cleveland State’s faculty and staff plan to begin meeting to discuss a new plan this summer.
On May 12, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act into law. The Tennessee Promise program, which will take effect in the fall of 2015, will allow students who just graduated from high school to attend community college for free.
Seymour become Cleveland State’s president in January after serving in vice president positions at Tennessee’s Jackson State Community College.
“It’s interesting to be a brand-new president at Cleveland State, and within the first few weeks that I’m there, the governor says ‘We want everyone to go for free,’” Seymour said, eliciting laughter from his audience.
Tennessee Promise will allow students to receive scholarships to cover the out-of-pocket costs that remain after pursuing other scholarships available to them. In exchange for that, students will take part in a program that includes mentoring from those who have been to college before, as well as a community service requirement.
It was modeled after a program called Tennessee Achieves, which has been available locally but not statewide. Because local students already had Tennessee Achieves, he is not predicting a huge influx of new students just because of Tennessee Promise.
“We won’t see a lot of change in the students that will be coming to the school because we’ve already had that last-dollar scholarship,” Seymour said.
However, he said the program will likely have a big impact on colleges in other counties that did not have the Tennessee Achieves program.
Tennessee Achieves was funded locally through private donations; local students were able to receive scholarships to attend Cleveland State through funding provided by local businessman Allan Jones.
During a question-and-answer session following his speech, Seymour responded to a inquiry about where the Tennessee Achieves funding would go, now that the program has been replaced by Tennessee Promise, by saying he does not know what it “will mean for the Allan Joneses of the world.”
On Tuesday, Seymour said he will meet with local mayors and school system directors to address “some choices that have to be made” in terms of how the Tennessee Promise program will be implemented and governed locally.
While the program will help traditional-age college students, he said the college has also been looking at ways to help older students.
Cleveland State currently boasts an enrollment of about 3,500 students taking classes for college credit, and 33 percent of those students are 25 or older, Seymour said. During the college’s most recent commencement, the average graduate was 30 years old.
While it is important to help younger students, he stressed that older students need help as well.
In an effort to encourage more older students to pursue college educations, the college recently partnered with the Bradley County school system’s Gear Up Tennessee program and Country Music Television’s “Empowering Education” initiative to provide a similar scholarship program for adults.
The Gear Up Interest Group program is being piloted with parents of students in Bradley County’s three Gear Up schools, Lake Forest Middle School, Bradley Central High School and GOAL Academy, this fall. Like Tennessee Promise, it will require mentorship meetings and community service and provide “last-dollar” funding.
Seymour said the college is still accepting applications for the program, and it will begin with a cohort of 10 to 15 students this fall.
He added that the hope is to eventually expand it to allow for more students, perhaps by seeking out private funding sources.
“I think we have something we can build on and grow,” Seymour said. “It’s a specific way in which we can better reach out to adult students.”
An added bonus, he said, is that some local middle and high school students who might have become first-generation college students could end up being second-generation college students with parents who can help them navigate the college experience when it is their turn.
This summer will find Cleveland State officials working on the college’s 2020 strategic plan as programs like Tennessee Promise and the Gear Up Interest Group launch this year and next and the college continues to evaluate what it is doing.
The planning process will begin with faculty and staff meetings this summer and continue with meetings for current students this fall. However, there will also be opportunities for local business leaders and other concerned citizens to share what they feel students need to be learning and share their ideas for improving the college.
“Opportunities will be available to the community ... to come in and participate in some workshops and help identify needs in the community,” Seymour said. “Stay tuned ... Help us think of ideas.”