Tennessee legislature passes free tuition program

Starting this fall, undergraduate students who attend a two or four-year public college in New York will be eligible for free tuition if their families earn no more than $100,000 a year. Tens of thousands of students are set to benefit.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Tennessee’s new plan to allow older adults without a college degree or certificate to attend community college free of charge will serve as a model as more states consider similar policies, experts and school administrators said Friday, May 12th.

The state General Assembly passed the bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign it into law. The tuition program is an extension of Haslam’s Tennessee Promise program that makes all new high school graduates eligible for free tuition at the state’s community colleges and technical schools.

The initiative is part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to boost the percentage of Tennesseans with higher education degrees or certificates from the current 38 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

Experts predict states will study Tennessee’s plan and its progress and consider passing similar laws.

“This is sort of like a cold — everybody is catching it,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “This is being talked about all over the place.”

Carnevale said the free tuition plan is part of the long evolution of the idea that people should have a high school education plus at least a two-year community college degree to be able to find a good job. In the past, jobs that could be secured by those with only a high school education, such as farming and mining, were more prevalent, he said.

Now, the trend has turned to other modes of employment, such as hospitality, computer technicians, and nursing, hospital and health care jobs, that require education beyond high school, Carnevale said.

“People are saying that 14 is the new 12,” Carnevale said, referring to the 12 years in primary, middle and secondary education, plus two years in community college.

The plan is focused on adults who aren’t new high school graduates and who cite finances as the primary obstacle of returning to school, and that’s promising, said Angela Boatman, assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.

“All eyes will be on Tennessee to see if they are able to recruit larger numbers of adults back to college, or into college for the first time,” she said.

The program is expected to cost the state $11 million a year, paid for through lottery proceeds. Both full- and part-time students would be eligible to participate as early as fall 2018.

At Jackson State Community College, administrators are excited about the opportunity to expand on Tennessee Promise and serve more people seeking education in the state, said Brian Gann, vice president for student services.

Gann said it’s too early to say how the plan will affect enrollment. But he acknowledges that other states will be looking closely at how Tennessee’s community colleges handle the process.

“We do have the responsibility to share the best practices of what’s going on here,” Gann said. “We here at Jackson State and our fellow community college leaders are happy to talk with other states. We’re already doing that now.”