Tennessee close to approving free community college for all high school grads

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed that his state use lottery funds to provide high school graduates with two free years of education at community or technical colleges.

First announced in February, the proposal now appears to be on track for approval, having won support from several of Haslem’s Republican colleagues in the state's General Assembly.

Called “Tennessee Promise,” Haslam’s plan would allow high school graduates to attend an in-state technical or community college without having to pay any tuition or associated fees. The funds would come from a newly created endowment using money from the lottery’s reserves.

It’s estimated that the plan would cost about $34 million each year.

The state currently has about 80,000 community college students, evenly divided between full-time and part-time students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

“As we encourage more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible,” Haslam said during his State of the State address in February. “Cost is often the biggest hurdle to furthering education.”

Some Democrats in the state oppose the proposal, saying it would take away funds from existing scholarship models.

In 2012, Tennessee’s lottery sales reached a record high of $1.2 billion. In the state lottery’s short history (it was launched in 2004), it has already raised more than $2.5 billion for educational programs.

Several other states, such as California and New York, generate billions each year for their education systems with lottery funds. However, those funds are directed to K-12 programs. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, other states, including Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina, use their lottery funds for college education scholarships but not to fully fund community or technical college programs.

A recent independent ranking put Tennessee 43rd in national college graduate rankings. Haslem has announced a goal of having 55 percent of the state’s adults complete an associate or bachelor’s degree program by 2025. Currently, 32.1 percent of the state’s adults complete a bachelors’ degree program.

“Even at a community college, it’s not cheap. You’ve got all that debt,” 22-year-old community college graduate Cody Mitchell said at a state legislative hearing this week covered by the Daily News Journal. “That money can go to a lot of other things.”