Governor Bill Haslam announced this week that Tennessee leads the nation in number of students filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The FAFSA is the form students fill out for college financial aid, and Tennessee is really promoting scholarship applications through its Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025.
If you want to know what Drive to 55 looks like in real life, imagine this: Last summer, my sister and I (who were a combined 100 years old at the time) walked into the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Nashville and inquired about possibly enrolling in some DIY classes—maybe a weekly plumbing class, so we could ultimately renovate a bathroom.
The folks in TCATN administration could not have been more helpful. They explained that they did not have the kind of classes we were looking for, but encouraged us—on the spot—to enroll in full-time college. My social and professional calendars at the time were such that I said, “OK, when do we start?”
The answer: “As soon as you fill out the FAFSA.”
My sister and I offered to write checks for our tuition. We weren’t sure it was appropriate for us, at our ages, to apply for financial aid. But the administrator insisted that Tennessee Reconnect grants for Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology were funded by our tax dollars and we should pursue them. He asked us three questions:
1. Are you Tennessee residents?
2. Have you ever used the Tennessee Reconnect scholarship before?
3. Are you currently in prison?
Satisfied by our answers (Yes, No, No), he nudged us toward two computer terminals, and, like a dogged Board of Regents border collie, herded us through the online application process.
Keep in mind that only about 15 minutes had passed since I had first casually contemplated taking a night class in home improvement. Suddenly, I was a few keystrokes away from a $6,000 grant. Things were moving fast, when a question about my joint tax filing prompted me to call my husband to see if he had the information close at hand.
“Honey, what are you doing?” he asked, in the tone he uses for special occasions—like when I first arrived home with a box of live chickens. Or when I poached a salmon in the dishwasher.
“I’m filling out the FAFSA for Building Construction Technology college,” I said, in a straight-faced tone that might lead the nearby administrator to think this was not a totally irrational and unpremeditated act on my part.
“Step away from the FAFSA,” my husband said.
Apparently, my sister was having a similar cell phone conversation with her husband, who, best I could infer, was equally nonplussed.
In the end, I did not fill out the FAFSA, because I calculated it would be easier to write a tuition check that day than to remit a reimbursement check to the government when I dropped or failed out of construction college, as I feared I inevitably would.
Fast-forward almost a year: I have neither dropped nor failed out of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Meanwhile, it has changed my life—all for the price-per-day of what it would cost to buy lunch at a fast-casual restaurant.
And to think it could have been free, if only I’d continued filling out the FAFSA! Because there is plenty of Tennessee Reconnect money available for Tennesseans who want to take the plunge into a Tennessee College of Applied Technology, whether as returning or first-time students. Programs range from aesthetics and nursing to auto collision repair and welding. Personally, I can’t recommend Building Construction Technology highly enough.
Meanwhile, since I still haven’t used the Tennessee Reconnect grant—or gone to prison—I’m starting to think about what else I might study after I graduate in December.