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Tennessee moves toward free community colleges

Published: February 14, 2014
Section: News


In Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s State of the State address last week, he proposed that the Volunteer State offer free tuition to state residents at community colleges and technology centers. The program would be called the Tennessee Promise.

If implemented, Tennessee would be the first state with such a system in place for its 80,000 community college students. Governor Haslam proposes to move $300 million of the $410 million in the state’s lottery fund into an endowment to cover tuition and fees for those who recently obtained their high school diploma or passed the high school equivalency exams. As with most bureaucratic decisions, there would be certain caveats that limit potential students’ eligibility for the program. Only those students in Tennessee who have recently graduated or received an equivalency degree would be eligible to take advantage of the waiver for tuition and fees. Applicants would first have to apply for all federal funds and Pell Grants and the state would supplement whatever cost remains for the students. Additional limitations would be that students must be attending courses full-time, defined as at least 12 credit hours. They must also maintain a 2.0 grade point average and complete eight hours of community service per semester. Students would be able to take part in the program for no more than five consecutive semesters. Only those state residents who are eligible for financial aid would be able to receive the tuition waivers.

Senior Vice President of the American Council on Education Terry W. Hartle said, “This is the best idea to boost participation in higher education in a generation,” according to The New York Times.

Experts believe that the use of a 12-credit minimum will limit the number of students willing to take part in the program as many students have to work a part-time or full-time job as well as find appropriate childcare services in order to attend the minimum number of credit hours.

Tennessee’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology’s tuition and fees cost approximately $3,800 per year versus the national average of $3300. Tuition and fees at two-year schools in the United States have risen by 38.5 percent between 2002 and 2011 according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

In addition to transferring the necessary money from the lottery fund, state scholarships to students at four-year state schools will be reduced. The state has a program of Hope Scholarships that are given to eligible college students. Governor Haslam plans to reduce these scholarships from $4,000 to $3,000 per year for first-years and sophomores but raise them to $5,000 per year for juniors and seniors. The state sets benchmarks for Hope Scholarship recipients based on standardized test scores and high school grade point average. The Hope Scholarships will be funded through the $110 million remaining in the lottery fund.

The Governor’s idea for increased access to community colleges is a part of his Drive for 55 Initiative which aims to have at least 55 percent of the state’s residents have a college degree or advanced certificate by 2025. Only 32 percent of adult Tennesseans currently meet this qualification. Haslam expects that in 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a college degree or certificate beyond high school to obtain a job.

In declaring his goal, The Tennessean reported that Governor Haslam said, “We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”

The Tennessee Promise is expected to cost $34 million per year, although critics believe that the actual cost may be greater as many residents will want to take advantage of the opportunity. Implementation of the plan will require approval by the state legislature, whose members have responded favorably to the idea.

Inside Higher Ed reported that Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, said that the state should be cautious about spending the public money. McClenney believes that the state may be “subsidizing large numbers of people who don’t need the support.”

California had a policy of free tuition at the state’s community colleges prior to fall of 1984 but had to rescind due to financial issues. Tuition is still minimal at $46 per unit but metastasizes after adding for costs of books, supplies, fees and housing. The City University of New York had a similar idea when the colleges were first formed but had to charge standard tuition as enrollment and costs increased. Oregon is conducting a study to test the viability of free community college tuition, and the Mississippi state legislature is implementing a similar policy to Tennessee’s.

Governor Haslam’s State of the State address included other techniques to increase the state’s higher education system including increasing funding dedicated to encouraging adults who have not finished college to go back to school, building a new facility at two community colleges, expanding a remedial math course from Chattanooga State University across the state and expanding a course advisory program from Austin Peay State University to colleges across the state.