Who’s Not Included In Tennessee’s Free Tuition Program? Undocumented Students
Gov. Bill Haslam talks about the Tennessee Promise program to students at Antioch High School in August. Credit: TN Photo Services

Who’s Not Included In Tennessee’s Free Tuition Program? Undocumented Students

Gov. Bill Haslam talks about the Tennessee Promise program to students at Antioch High School in August. Credit: TN Photo Services
Gov. Bill Haslam talks about the Tennessee Promise program to students at Antioch High School in August. Credit: TN Photo Services

Nearly every high school senior applied for Tennessee Promise, but a small percentage of them may not be eligible for free community college tuition. Before getting the state funding, students must apply for federal financial aid — which leaves undocumented students behind.

Tennessee has about 6,000 high school students who are undocumented, according to the Migration Policy Institute. (Estimates on a grade-by-grade level are not available.)

“Within undocumented communities and circles, there was a hope that existed that they would be incorporated, they would be folded in with the Tennessee Promise,” says Josh Henderson, an English language teacher at Antioch High School.

The governor’s speech introducing Tennessee Promise may have encouraged that hope:

“To every student, from every kindergartner to every high school senior, we will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or college of applied technology absolutely free,” he said in February.

A spokeswoman for the governor says he was referring only to eligible students in his speech. But some high school seniors didn’t realize that at first, Henderson says, and he says he saw undocumented students weeping after finding out they didn’t qualify.

“I had one student that looked me in the eye and said, ‘I’ve made good decisions, I’ve worked hard, I’ve scored well on tests. I know students that don’t care about going to college, and I wish I could just have their opportunity,’” he says.

Even if undocumented students still wanted to attend community college, they would have to pay out-of-state rates — about $14,000 a year in tuition and fees.

Ironically, that means these kids might have better luck paying for college at a four-year university. In Nashville, Lipscomb and Trevecca give scholarships to undocumented students. Western Kentucky, which is public, gives Tennessee residents in certain counties in-state tuition, regardless of their legal status.

Many of these students have social security numbers through a federal program that gives work permits to illegal immigrants who came the U.S. here as children, but they still aren’t eligible for federal financial aid. While Tennessee Promise doesn’t explicitly forbid undocumented students to apply — and in fact, some of the 56,000 students who applied may have been undocumented — their applications would fail because they couldn’t fill out the federal financial aid form, known as FAFSA.

Editor’s note: We previously said that Western Kentucky gives all Tennessee residents in-state tuition. Only residents in three counties are eligible for in-state tuition; residents in 17 other Tennessee counties are eligible for a rate slightly higher than in-state tuition.

Emily Siner

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter: @SinerSays
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