Tennessee promises free two-year college

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In his 2014 State of the State address, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced a bold offer – two years of free community or technical college:

Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors. We are also proposing last dollar scholarships for all adults – regardless of age or previous qualification for a HOPE scholarship – to attend [Tennessee technical colleges] free of charge.

Haslam proposes to pay for the program with an endowment created from state lottery revenues. WREG-Memphis reports that $302 million would be transferred from the Tennessee Lottery Hope Scholarships fund, leaving $110 million in the lottery reserve.

The 2013 Opportunity Index, a state-by-state ranking created by the group Opportunity Nation, finds that 29.6 percent of Tennesseeans have a two-year degree, below the national average of 36.3 percent.

Haslam’s proposal, while ambitious, is not new. USA Today reports that California and New York have experimented with free community college tuition in the past. According to USA Today, California community colleges were free until 1984, and the City University of New York tried dropping tuition in the 1970s until budget woes made the program unworkable.

In 2007, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick also proposed a 10-year plan to offer free community college, a move which the nonprofit PHENOM estimated would cost $200 million a year.

Tennessee’s proposal for free college follows similar efforts in Michigan, Indiana, California, New Jersey and New York.
Other pioneering programs have focused on offering free four-year college to state or local residents.  In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Kalamazoo Promise program has been offering free college tuition to Kalamazoo public school graduates since 2005. The Kalamazoo school district reports gaining more than 2,100 students since the program was launched.

The oldest and most well-known free tuition program, however, is the Indiana 21st Century Scholars program, established by then-Governor Evan Bayh in 1990. Under this initiative, students enroll in the 7th or 8th grade and earn a four-year scholarship to an Indiana college or university if they maintain passing grades, stay drug and alcohol free and participate in college prep activities.

An evaluation by the Lumina Foundation reports that the program has enrolled 44,110 graduates since its inception (or 10 percent of all Indiana college-goers). Lumina also found that students enrolled in the program were more than 50 percent more likely than non-scholars to go to college (although college graduation rates proved disappointing). Lumina did, however, credit the program with contributing to a dramatic increase in the percentage of Indiana students going to college. Between 1986 and 2004, the state’s college continuation rate skyrocketed from 33 percent to 62 percent.


Tennessee Promise: Offering free community college to all students