NerdWallet’s Guide to Financial Aid Programs in Tennessee

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Written by Kat Tretina
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The Volunteer State is home to excellent colleges and universities, including Vanderbilt University, Rhodes College, University of Tennessee and The University of Memphis.

Higher education tends to be less expensive in Tennessee, and there are several financial aid programs that can make college more affordable. Depending on your income, household size and career goals, you may qualify for one of Tennessee’s grants, scholarships or loan repayment programs.

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The cost of education in Tennessee

In Tennessee, there are over 80 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. Generally, the cost of college is cheaper in the state than in other parts of the country. Here’s how much you can expect to pay for one academic year for tuition, room and board and other required fees at Tennessee's college and universities, based on 2020-21 rates reported by the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • Public four-year (in-state): The average cost of attending an in-state public university for Tennessee residents was $20,639, slightly less than the national average of $21,337.

  • Private: At private nonprofit institutions in Tennessee, the average cost is $41,411, nearly $5,000 less than the national average. 

  • Public two-year (in-state): Community college in Tennessee tends to be more expensive than it is in other states. The average cost of tuition and fees at Tennessee two-year schools is $4,361, nearly $900 more than the national average.  

Financial aid options in Tennessee

To qualify for financial aid and in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen. 

  • And live in the state for at least 12 months prior to enrollment. 

  • Or graduate from a Tennessee public secondary school, private secondary school or earn the equivalent of a high school diploma within the state.

  • Or be a spouse of an in-state student, regardless of how long you’ve lived in the state.

While some states allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid if they meet other residency requirements, Tennessee does not. Undocumented students, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, are not eligible for in-state tuition or state-based financial aid.

🤓Nerdy Tip

State residency requirements and programs can change over time. Visit the Tennessee Higher Education Commission & Student Assistance Corp. website for the latest.

Tennessee provides multiple financial aid programs to its residents:

  • 529 plans.

  • In-state tuition. 

  • Grants.

  • Scholarships.

  • Incentive programs.

  • Student loan repayment assistance.

529 plans

Although many states offer both a 529 college savings plan and a prepaid tuition plan, Tennessee ended its prepaid tuition plan in 2021. Families today have only one Tennessee 529 option, the TNStars program.

The TNStars College Savings 529 Program is a tax-advantaged investment account that you can open with as little as $25 to invest for a child’s college education. The money in the account grows tax-deferred and, if the money is used for qualified higher education expenses, the withdrawals are tax-free.

Earnings on the account are not subject to federal income tax. There isn’t an added state benefit or incentive, but Tennessee doesn’t have a state income tax on earned income.

In-state tuition

Reduce your education expenses by opting for a public state school rather than a private college or university. In Tennessee, the average cost of attending an in-state public university is about half the cost of attending a private school.

However, if you’re a Tennessee resident and want to go to college in another state — or if you live in another part of the country and want to attend a university in Tennessee — you could save money through a tuition exchange or reciprocity program.

Tennessee is part of the Southern Regional Education Board’s Academic Common Market, a tuition-savings program for students in 15 participating states:

  • Alabama.

  • Arkansas.

  • Delaware.

  • Florida.

  • Georgia.

  • Kentucky.

  • Louisiana.

  • Maryland.

  • Mississippi.

  • Oklahoma.

  • South Carolina.

  • Tennessee.

  • Texas.

  • Virginia.

  • West Virginia.

More than 100 colleges and universities in those states participate in the program, allowing students to attend eligible schools in another state and pay the resident in-state tuition rate — if they want to pursue specialized degrees not offered by public institutions in their home state.

Tennessee grants

Tennessee residents may qualify for one of the state’s six grant programs. These financial aid programs are awarded based on student financial need as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Dual Enrollment Grant

Through the Dual Enrollment Grant, eligible high school students who are also taking credit-earning college courses at eligible institutions can qualify for a grant that covers a full semester of college tuition and fees — while still pursuing their high school diploma.

Helping Heroes Grant

U.S. veterans who were honorably discharged from the military and are former or current members of the National Guard or a reserve unit in Tennessee may qualify for the Helping Heroes Grant. It provides up to $1,000 per semester for students enrolled in eligible programs.

Tennessee HOPE Foster Child Tuition Grant

Current or former foster teens may qualify for a Tennessee HOPE Foster Child Tuition Grant. The grant will pay for the total cost of attendance minus other gift aid at eligible four- and two-year schools.

Tennessee Reconnect Grant

Independent students or those who are at least 23 years old on Jan. 1 of the academic year and have not previously earned an associate degree or higher may be eligible for the Tennessee Reconnect Grant. Award amounts vary but can be used toward remaining tuition and fee costs after deducting other aid. To qualify, students must participate in a college success program and attend an eligible school.

Tennessee Student Assistance Award

The Tennessee Student Assistance Award program is a grant for undergraduate students with significant financial need. It provides up to $4,000 per academic year for students enrolled at least half-time and attending an eligible school.

Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant

The Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant is awarded to students attending a Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT). Qualifying students can receive up to $2,000 per academic year.

Tennessee state scholarships

Tennessee operates several scholarship programs for students with strong standardized test scores and grade point averages (GPAs).

TCAT Reconnect Scholarship

The TCAT Reconnect Scholarship is for independent students with financial need attending TCAT schools. The value of the scholarship is based on the student’s remaining tuition and fees after deducting other gift aid.

Tennessee HOPE Scholarship

Entering first-year students who enroll at an eligible college or university within 16 months of graduating a state high school may qualify for the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship. This award provides up to $2,250 per semester for the first two years of the student’s education, and up to $2,850 per semester for the third and fourth years; it’s also available for summer classes. Strong standardized test scores and GPAs are required.

Some Tennessee HOPE Scholarship recipients may also qualify for supplemental awards:

  • Aspire Award: The Aspire Award provides up to $750 per semester to first-year students. 

  • General Assembly Merit Scholarship: The General Assembly Merit Scholarship supplements the HOPE Scholarship and awards up to $500 per semester to first-year students. 

Tennessee HOPE Scholarship — Nontraditional

The Tennessee HOPE Scholarship — Nontraditional is an award for independent students with incomes of $36,000 or less. It provides up to $2,250 per semester for the first and second year of college, and up to $2,850 per semester for the third and fourth years.

Nontraditional scholarship recipients aren’t eligible for either the Aspire Award or the General Assembly Merit Scholarship.

Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship

Students with intellectual disabilities may qualify for the Tennessee STEP UP Scholarship. It provides students enrolled in eligible programs at select schools with up to $2,250 per semester for the first and second years, and up to $2,850 per semester for the third and fourth years.

Dependent Children Scholarship Program

Children of Tennessee law enforcement officers, firefighters or emergency medical service technicians who were killed or totally and permanently disabled while on duty can qualify for the Dependent Children Scholarship Program. Awards vary by year, and they are partially based on financial need.

Ned McWherter Scholars Program

Under the Ned McWherter Scholars Program, academically strong students can qualify for awards up to $6,000 per academic year: $3,000 from the state and $3,000 from a participating institution. To qualify, students must have an unweighted GPA of 3.5 or better and a 29 ACT score (or its concordant equivalent on the SAT).

Tennessee Promise Scholarship

The Tennessee Promise Scholarship is for students with financial need who graduated from an eligible high school or received a diploma equivalent within the state. The student must enroll at an eligible college, and the award can cover the remaining balance of tuition and fees after deducting other gift aid.

The student must commit to attending monthly meetings and mentoring sessions, and they must complete eight hours of community service prior to each term of the award.

Incentive programs

Tennessee offers two incentive programs for students who commit to work for a specific length of time in a high-need area. If the recipient fails to complete their obligation, the award is converted into a loan that must be repaid with interest.

Minority Teaching Fellows Program

The Minority Teaching Fellows Program gives up to $5,000 per year to students in minority groups who are pursuing teaching certifications at a qualifying school. Qualifying students can receive the award for up to four years.

They must commit to teaching pre-K-12 at a Tennessee public school for one year for each year they receive the award. If the student leaves school before graduating or doesn’t complete the service obligation, the award is converted into a loan with a 9% interest rate.

Graduate Nursing Loan Forgiveness Program

The Graduate Nursing Loan Forgiveness Program was designed to encourage registered nurses in Tennessee to become teachers and administrators at state nursing education programs. Qualifying students can receive up to $7,000 per year for their education.

In exchange, they must work full time as a faculty member or in an administrative position at a college or university in a state nursing education program for at least four years. If they don’t complete that obligation, the award is converted into a loan with a 9% interest rate.

Student loan repayment programs in Tennessee

Tennessee has limited student loan repayment programs. While some states operate multiple programs for different professions, Tennessee has one — and only health care providers qualify.

Tennessee State Loan Repayment Program (TSLRP)

Through the TSLRP, primary care practitioners can receive up to $50,000 to repay their student loans. In return, they must work for at least two years at an ambulatory public, nonprofit or private nonprofit primary care site in a designated health care professional shortage area.

Financial aid for undocumented students in Tennessee

Tennessee does not offer aid for undocumented students. However, those students may qualify for aid through two nonprofit organizations in the state:

  • TheDream.US issues scholarships to students who attend partnering universities. In Tennessee, its partner is Christian Brothers University. 

  • Equal Chance for Education provides students in Tennessee with up to $25,000 to pay for their college educations. 

How to apply for financial aid in Tennessee

To qualify for state-based financial aid in Tennessee, follow these steps:

  1. Submit the FAFSA. To apply for aid in Tennessee, you must complete the FAFSA. The form can be completed online in less than an hour, and it asks questions about your household size, income and assets. 

  2. Create an account through the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. (TSAC) Student Portal. Some Tennessee financial aid programs require only the FAFSA, while others require you to apply through the portal. Creating an account will allow you to view the eligibility requirements and apply to applicable awards. 

  3. Contact your school’s financial aid office. If you aren’t sure what the deadline is to submit your application or what aid is available, contact your school’s financial aid office for assistance. 

If you need more help, College for TN, an organization run by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, has free video tutorials and step-by-step instructions for filling out and submitting the FAFSA. And you can contact your region’s outreach team member for specific financial aid questions.

Frequently asked questions

No, the FAFSA is very different from the Tennessee Promise award. The FAFSA is an application students must complete to apply for federal, state and institutional financial aid, while the Tennessee Promise award is a scholarship program operated by the state. However, to qualify for the Tennessee Promise award, students must first submit the FAFSA.

No. Unlike other states that have financial aid programs for undocumented and DACA students, Tennessee limits in-state tuition and state-based aid to U.S. citizens.

The federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30 of each academic year. But Tennessee’s deadline is much earlier. Students must submit by March 1.

Some colleges and universities may have different deadlines, so check with your selected college to find out when you need to submit. Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after it opens, usually in October ahead of each academic year.

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