Adult woman counseling student

This summer, the news shed light on a concerning reality for Tennessee: the state’s college-going rate had declined. With a drop of 9 percentage points since the COVID-19 pandemic began, thousands of students in the college-going pipeline were lost — approximately 7,000 in two years. 

While this news has potentially devastating consequences for our students and the state’s future workforce, at tnAchieves, we are taking this opportunity to reimagine our approach and restructure our work to provide increased supports for all students with a specific focus on TN Promise students. Here’s how we’re taking on the challenge.

Restructuring The tnAchieves Mentoring Program

While the role will remain the same, we still need 9,000 volunteers to give one hour per month to serve as a task-manager, trusted college resource, and encourager. Students and mentors will come together earlier than ever before, and by introducing students to an invested adult, we hope to create excitement around college going before students pursue other plans.

tnAchieves recruits 9,000 volunteers to ultimately train about 7,200 mentors. It is almost an identical match to the number of students our state lost during COVID. The goal is simple: We need each volunteer to encourage one additional student to attend college — a student who was not planning to enroll before they met. If each mentor can reach just one student, we can reverse the negative enrollment trends of the past two years. It only takes one.

Expanding Knox Promise Across The State

Knox Promise increased fall-to-fall retention from 32 percent to 82 percent for low-income students, and we are working to replicate this game-changing number statewide. Known as COMPLETE, the new program pairs economically disadvantaged TN Promise students with a proactive tnAchieves COMPLETE coach. Our coaches have been hard at work building relationships with students to ease the transition to college and ensure students remain enrolled and ultimately graduate.

Each eligible student also has access to up to $1,000 per semester in COMPLETE grants, which help students fund the costs associated with attending college not covered by TN Promise. Grants are available to address food, housing, and transportation insecurities, as well as ensure students have the books, tools, computers, and supplies they need to be successful. In just one week, tnAchieves disbursed $240,572 to 1,033 TN Promise students in 83 counties. Coupled with the August Knox Promise funding, tnAchieves disbursed over $340,000 in COMPLETE grants to students in August.

Using Student Level Data To Meet Every TN Promise Student Where They Are — At Scale

We have a robust communications strategy that includes targeted calls, emails, and text messages — efforts that have increased the number of applications submitted to our state’s community colleges. We have also elevated student voice to encourage each student to determine their “why” in pursuing a postsecondary degree. The value proposition around higher education matters, and we are facing this challenge head-on.

The tnAchieves team is working to address this challenge and turn around the troubling trend in Tennessee’s college-going rate, and we believe the efforts outlined here can make a positive impact for students. But we can’t do it alone. If you want to make a difference for students, please consider giving one hour per month to students in your community by registering as a mentor at

Graham Thomas is chief community and government relations officer for tnAchieves.