Free College 

Organization provides funding to students who can’t afford college tuition.

College tuition is increasing every year, leading to a bigger burden on the pockets of students and their families. But a statewide effort is aimed at helping low-income, prospective college students lessen that burden.

The tnAchieves organization, which formed in Knoxville in 2008, works with public high school seniors across Tennessee as they begin their transition to college. Present in 27 counties, tnAchieves provides last-dollar, post-secondary scholarships of up to $4,000 annually to qualifying public high school graduates.

"Our target is the student who might not be going to college without some type of support," said Kaci Murley, director of post-secondary success for tnAchieves. "We target students who are the first in their family to go to college. Our goal is to change the college-going rate."

In five years, tnAchieves has worked with nearly 17,000 applicants. More than 7,000 of those students went on to enroll at a post-secondary institution; nearly 5,000 were first-generation college students.

Since launching Memphis/Shelby Achieves locally in 2011, they have sent more than 700 students to Southwest Tennessee Community College or Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Memphis. Seventy-two percent of these students were the first in their family to attend college.

Memphis/Shelby Achieves is anticipating even more applicants for this upcoming year. The program plans to accept nearly 3,500 scholarship applications from the class of 2014. Students can apply for the program until October 4th.

The tnAchieves group not only provides financial support to aspiring college students, but it also matches students with a volunteer who helps them meet the requirements and deadlines to qualify for funding. With the projected increase in applicants this year, Memphis/Shelby Achieves forsees the need for 400 new volunteers.

"This is one of the easiest and most high-impact programs that I know of to help our students in Memphis," said volunteer Sally Pace. "You have a calendar to help these students file for last-dollar scholarship money and to help them enroll into local community colleges. You guide them through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process and remind them of deadlines along the way. I'm incredibly proud of the number of students in our city who are taking advantage of this opportunity."

Mentors spend an average of one hour per month assisting four or five students from the high school of their choice. Through phone calls, emails, or text messages, mentors remind students of the requirements to remain eligible for the program.

Prior to receiving funding, students have to attend two meetings, file the FAFSA, and attend new-student college orientation after graduation. Every student who applies for the application isn't guaranteed to meet every deadline and receive funding.

"Last year, I had five students, and not one of them made it through the process of meeting all of the requirements to go to school," said Bud Ritchie, another volunteer for Memphis/Shelby Achieves. "This year, I had five, and three of them met all of the requirements. They're entering Southwest this fall."

By 2014, tnAchieves will have funded nearly $8.9 million in last-dollar scholarships (additional funding students need to attend college after filling out the FAFSA).

"I want Shelby County to realize that what this program really means is that no student in Shelby County now can say, 'I couldn't go to college, because I couldn't afford it.' We've eliminated that barrier," Murley said. "To ensure that all of the students make it through, we've just got to have the community step up and volunteer. It can make all the difference in the world."

On Sept. 5th, a tnAchieves information session will take place at the Holiday Inn near the Wolfchase Galleria from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

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