From a Knoxville initiative came a statewide movement.
tnAchieves, a program that provides scholarship assistance and mentoring to students pursuing a college education, expanded out of a local program called knoxAchieves in 2011. Created in 2008 by Mike Ragsdale, former Knox County mayor, knoxAchieves aimed to adequately prepare students for college, provide access to higher education and close the achievement gap.
The goal of tnAchieves is to provide for high school students who would be otherwise unable to afford college. More than 66 percent of tnAchieves students are the first in their families to attend college.
"While all public high school students in the 27 eligible counties can participate with tnAchieves, the program works closely with school counselors to send the student to college who would otherwise not attend," said Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves.
tnAchieves equips students with scholarship money to fill the difference in education cost after all other financial aid and scholarships have been awarded. Funding for tnAchieves scholarships relies largely on private donors.
Once students are accepted into the tnAchieves program, they must fulfill certain requirements to retain the scholarship. All tnAchieves participants are required to attend mandatory meetings, spend at least eight hours per semester volunteering in the community and retain a minimum 2.0 GPA.
Virginia Hughes, a junior studying anthropology, got involved with tnAchieves when she attended William Blount High School. Hughes was assigned a mentor, Laura Harrill, a retired hospital administrator to help her with paperwork, financial issues and general concerns with college.
Hughes attended Pellissippi State Community College before transferring to UT to pursue a bachelor's degree. Chosen to represent the program in a Time Magazine article, Hughes said she has been significantly impacted by tnAchieves.
"The program helped me through college by giving me a mentor who is constantly checking in and celebrating my milestones with me," Hughes said. "They support you, and you can truly see that they want to help you succeed in life and help make Tennessee a better place.
"If I had never received the scholarship from the program I would never be here, in college, and looking at actually graduating."
The number of Tennessee students attending college has increased 7.61 percent since the start of tnAchieves three years ago. In addition, 6,400 students have been admitted to community or technical colleges during the five years of the tnAchieves program.
DeAlejandro attributes this success to the scholarship money provided to students, but also to the assistance provided by mentors.
According to a 2011 study conducted by Stanford University School of Education, students who are coached during their college experience by text, email and phone are 15 percent more likely to stay in school and 4 percent more likely to graduate than students who are not similarly coached.
"Each applicant is assigned a mentor who assists the student in eliminating the barriers associated with post-secondary access," DeAlejandro said. "tnAchieves mentors support the student through admission and financial aid paperwork, motivate the student to meet deadlines, and perhaps most importantly, encourage the student to reach his or her potential.
"I truly believe that the mentor is the heart of our program and the reason behind our overwhelming success."
For DeAlejandro, tnAchieves represents equal opportunity for Tennessee students to attend college and succeed post-graduation.
"Since 2008, I have spent the greater part of each day promoting this bold idea that every student, regardless of family income, zip code and even academic preparedness, deserves the opportunity to receive a college credential," DeAlejandro said. "With a certificate or college degree, our students will increase their earning potential and hopefully inspire others to pursue education beyond high school."