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Knox Promise scholarship helping more local students stay in college

Even in a pandemic, with finances being a struggle for many, grants available to the students in the Knox Promise program kept them in school and financially stable.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Almost all high school seniors in Tennessee are eligible for the Tennessee Promise last-dollar scholarship.

After students apply for FAFSA, Tennessee Promise will pay the difference, often covering all costs for students to attend community or technical colleges across the state.

But that doesn't cover things like books, supplies, or housing, leaving those expenses to students.

That's not the case in Knox County, thanks to the Knox Promise pilot program launched in 2019.

Students can apply for stipends and completion grants to help offset these extra costs.

Internal research shows those students saw an 84 percent persistence rate and higher GPA's than their counterparts at community college.

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One of the students thriving with Knox Promise is Kambria Coffey.

The Farragut High School grad knew as soon as she got the first email from Tennessee Promise that the Knox Promise program was perfect for her.

"I was super nervous going into college because I mean, I've never been," she said. "And since it was my first year, I was like, it'd be really nice to have someone to work with and talk to and just like bounce ideas off of."

Coffey is about to finish her two years at Pellissippi State and transfer to Maryville College

"I'm going to go into some sort of biology field, like ecology, zoology, botany," she said.

The star student has one person in particular who really helped her pave the way to success, and that's her Knox Promise coach.

Jacy Skelton is one of five complete coaches for the Knox Promise scholarship.

She acts as a mentor to hundreds of students like Coffey.

"All students are in different places," said Skelton. "They need different things for me. So whether that be helping them with a completion grant, helping them get the book stipend, and just coaching them through that as they go."

Those stipends and grants are only available to Knox Promise students and made a difference for Coffey this year.

"I was able to use them a couple of times just due to COVID because of different financial reasons that have come up," she said. "And I was able to continue at Pellissippi because of them and I'm thankful for them."

Program administrators found that even with tuition covered by the Tennessee Promise scholarship, about 30 percent of the students still needed help with textbooks and supplies, 20 percent needed help with transportation costs, and another 13 percent needed help with food costs.

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But coaching is what's proven to set Knox Promise students apart from others at community colleges across the state.

"Our students love it, and it's very helpful for all of them," said Skelton.

Knox Promise students who engaged with a completion coach achieved a 78 percent fall-to-fall persistence rate at community colleges, compared to the 56.8 percent statewide average.

"We would love to scale it across the state, and we're looking into ways to do that as soon as we can," said Skelton.

Organizers plan to ask the state legislature to extend this extra funding program to more counties.

The state comptroller's office is also encouraging state leaders to consider it.

It's also students like Coffey who can have a chance to do what they love.

"I love to learn and I'm a curious person and I just want to keep continuing on this path of getting a higher education," she said.