By Annie Wood
August 27, 2014
Caption : Tennessee's Governor has made access and affordability a priority in higher education in his state. Starting in 2015, students can go to community colleges in Tennessee on a full ride.     

At a time when success and progress in higher education funding mean tuition freezes and preventing budget cuts, talk of free college tuition is usually taken with a grain of salt. What’s happening in Tennessee is about to bring the discussion of state investment to the forefront.

Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN) is encouraging students across the state to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise program, which allows high school graduates to attend their first two years at a community college on a full ride.

The free tuition program is a part of the “Drive tTo 55” campaign which aims to bring the college graduation up to 55 percent in Tennessee by 2025. The program provides students with a mentor and requires them to participate in at least eight hours of community service each year.

After graduation, students can go on to a four-year university if they choose, and enter the school as a Junior.

The Tennessee Promise program is a “last dollar” model, where the state will make up the difference in students’ financial needs only after federal aid, like Pell Grants, are exhausted. Tuition at community colleges in Tennessee is about $4,000 per year.

“We don’t want anyone to say, ‘I’d like to go to college, but can’t afford it,’” Governor Haslam said during his recent visits to high schools around the state, promoting the program.

The program just opened the application, and has received more than 1,000 so far. The application period for the first class, which will begin in Fall of 2015, ends November 1, 2014.

Creating a tuition-free model for the first two years of college isn’t cheap, nor is it easy. Haslam approximated that the initial annual cost will be around $34 million. In order to fund the program and protect it from future budget cuts, Haslam secured a $300 million self-sustaining endowment funded by the state lottery.

Haslam has also worked to bring community colleges into high school classrooms, to bring students up to college-ready levels in math. This initiative was funded last year with Drive to 55 funds, and has seen some early success67 percent of the high school students who participated in the program were able to enter higher education without needing remedial math courses, which saved millions in tuition. This year, Tennessee has also seen the highest composite ACT scores in a decade.

The Drive To 55 campaign isn’t just about expanding opportunities to students who want to better themselvesHaslam hopes the program will improve job qualifications across the state and attract employers to the state.

While many students are thrilled about the opportunity to pursue higher education with little to no debt, the program in Tennessee is not without controversy.

It wasn’t easy securing the lottery funds for the endowment, as they were actually allotted to the state’s HOPE scholarship fund. Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), who represents Memphis, worked hard to acquire the lottery funds for the HOPE scholarship: “The hardest thing about education policy is getting the money. [Haslam] just poached money.”

Cohen also worries that the program will encourage students to just attend community college instead of going on to pursue a four-year degree.

The creation of the endowment for the Tennessee Promise program has led to cuts in the HOPE scholarship program, which has made public university officials wary.

Supporters of the Tennessee Promise assert that the program is drawing attention to the value of higher education and is expanding access by leaps and bounds. Leaders in other states are taking noteOregon and Mississippi have talked about creating similar tuition-free community college programs, but have struggled to find funding.

In Texas, there was a proposal modeled after the Tennessee Promise, but finding the source of funding for the needed $2 billion endowment is a major challenge.

As the program launches next year, the nation will be watching, and waiting for results. Whether or not Tennessee’s program is replicable in other states, Haslam is certainly drawing much-needed attention to the persistent issue of a lack of funding in higher education.

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