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Tennessee Enclave Investing in Its Future

Education: In a bid to hang on to their best resource, taxpayers pay for high school seniors to attend local community college.


KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Aspiring computer programmer Jacob Matney always planned to go to college. He just didn't know how to pay for it.

"I didn't have the best grades, so I didn't get those kind of scholarships," said Jacob, whose high B-plus average couldn't crack the top 10 of his graduating class at Sullivan North High School.

"I don't have any health problems or anything like that, so I didn't get those scholarships. I was just in the middle, where I got close to nothing."

But in an act of civic benevolence never before seen in Tennessee--or apparently elsewhere in the United States--his hometown came up with an answer.

Kingsport and Sullivan County, a farming and manufacturing community of 144,000 near the Virginia line, has pledged up to $250,000 a year to send every high school graduate to the local community college. The money will come from the governments' general funds.

Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier said the idea behind the Educate & Grow scholarship program, which started last fall, was to reduce a "brain drain" on the economy when bright young people go away to college and never come back.

"As far as I know this is unique," said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Assn. of Community Colleges. "What they have done is admirable. It's wonderful, it truly is. I hope it sets a precedent."

Private foundations sometimes provide large blocks of scholarships, and local governments sometimes offer a handful of taxpayer-financed scholarships to top students.

But Kingsport and Sullivan County are offering a tuition-free ride to Northeast State Technical Community College--worth some $1,600 a year--to every student graduating from the county's six high schools, as well as qualifying home-schooled students.

For some, it will lead to a two-year associate degree in one of some 45 fields. For others, it will mean credit transferable to a four-year school, such as nearby East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

"I think it is fantastic," said Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees 182,000 students at six state universities, 14 community colleges and 26 technology centers.

In Tennessee, where tuition has risen 72% since 1993, college has become unaffordable for as many as half of its low-income students, according to a recent study by the Lumina Foundation for Education.

"A lot of people just turn off when they see the sticker price," Manning said. "The advantage of this program is that it takes that away."

In the fall, 103 students, including Jacob, enrolled at Northeast State under the Educate & Grow program. Seventy-two returned for the spring semester--a higher-than-normal retention rate.

The requirements are few: Students must take at least 12 hours of classes a semester and maintain a "C" average. They must begin within 15 months of graduating high school and finish their 60-hour degree within three calendar years.

The scholarship won't pay for remedial classes; students have to pay for those themselves. Four students did so last fall.

"We expect we will have more people doing this next year because the word is spreading," Northeast State President Bill Locke said.

Scott Welmaker, executive director of the Kingsport Economic Development Partnership, said the community's commitment is long-term and without dissent.

"I think this is a major step forward in recognizing that 12 years really isn't enough anymore. You have got to have an education beyond traditional K-12 to get any kind of job these days."

Jacob's mother, Karen Matney, a librarian who also is rearing a 9-year-old daughter, called the scholarship a godsend for her son.

"He has big dreams and, with this, we hope they will come true."

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