Tennessee Passes Plan for Tuition-Free Two-Year College

By Staff


This week, Tennessee lawmakers approved a plan by Gov. Bill Haslam offer free community college tuition to all graduates of high schools in the state, The Tennessean reported.

The state’s House of Representatives joined the Senate in approving “Tennessee Promise.” The plan, which will take effect in 2015, is an effort to encourage a larger share of the population to seek college credentials.

The approval, 87-8, comes a day after the Senate approved the legislation 30-1. “The governor is grateful for the General Assembly’s overwhelming support of the Tennessee Promise,” Alexia Poe, Haslam spokeswoman, said in a statement issued after the House vote. “It is a bold promise that will make college a reality for more high school graduates.”

The legislation is a cornerstone of Haslam’s “Drive to 55″ campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 “to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state,” the Washington Times reported.

ennessee Promise also calls for reducing the amount of Hope scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at state universities to $3,500, “a cut of $500 a year. Juniors and seniors would receive $4, 500,” The Tennessean reported.

The program is expected to cost about $34 million annually. Haslam plans to pay for the Tennessee Promise using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds “and join it with a $47 million endowment,” the Washington Times reported. The state has about $400 million in reserves. After graduation from community colleges, students who choose to attend a four-year school will be able to do so as juniors.

The idea of free community college tuition has also been discussed in other states, including Florida, Mississippi and Oregon. However, according to Inside Higher Ed reported, Tennessee has drawn the most attention for its community college tuition plan. Haslam, a Republican, has won fans by prodding colleges to do better, and then finding ways to fund those initiatives. He suggested funneling $300 million from the state’s lottery fund to create an endowment that would cover the cost of the tuition and fees.

The so-called Tennessee Promise would cost the state an estimated $34 million per year, according to a fact sheet the governor’s office circulated. But Haslam said the proposed endowment should be able to handle that expense. To be eligible students must enroll in community college the fall after their high school graduation. They must also take at least 12 credit hours per semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per semester, according to the fact sheet.

The fund will be a “last-dollar scholarship,” meaning it will cover only the fees left over after all other sources of aid have been applied. That includes federal funding, like Pell Grants.
The state expects 25,000 students to apply to the program. And the governor’s office said it hopes to bring in at least 5,000 volunteer mentors to work with applicants.

“It is a promise that we have an ability to make,” Haslam said of the plan in a written statement issued when it was first proposed. “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

A similar plan is moving forward in Mississippi, albeit more quietly. A committee of the state’s Legislature passed a bill that would make tuition free at all 15 Mississippi community colleges for students who graduated from high school within 12 months of enrolling in college. An appropriations committee and the full Legislature have yet to consider the plan.

To qualify under the language in the proposed bill, students would also need to be first-time, full-time students. Once admitted students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA while taking a minimum of 15 credit hours each semester to continue to have their tuition covered by the state. Mississippi would only pick up the tuition costs after all other federal, state and institutional aid sources have been tapped. As a result, lawmakers estimated the annual cost to be less than $4.5 million per year for the 75,000-student system, reported The Sun Herald of Biloxi.

The impetus for the legislation is concern over the “cost of higher education,” according to the text of the bill, and the “growing financial burden of both out-of-pocket expenses and loans to be repaid, that are being placed on current and future students.” Those concerns are legitimate, Sara Goldrick-Rab, an associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Inside Higher Ed.

Many people mistakenly believe community college is affordable, said Goldrick-Rab, who studies community college access issues. It is not, she said, at least for low-income students, who face an average net price of more than $8,000 a year even after all grants are considered.

Yet while Goldrick-Rab said the free-tuition plans are welcome developments, some are better than others. She is concerned about whether the plans would harm access to four-year institutions. That’s because academically prepared, low-income students experience a “smoother path” to a bachelor degree if they start at a four-year institution. The benefits of free tuition are reduced if policy makers set “unreasonable criteria” such as high G.P.A. or credit thresholds.