• October 31, 2014

Free Community College? Tennessee Proposal Draws Praise and Concerns

Free Community College? Tennessee Proposal Draws Praise and Concerns

Mark Zaleski, AP Images

Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee unveiled this week a plan that would make two years of community college free for all of the state's graduating high-school seniors. Experts have mostly praise for the proposal but raise some questions too.

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close Free Community College? Tennessee Proposal Draws Praise and Concerns

Mark Zaleski, AP Images

Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee unveiled this week a plan that would make two years of community college free for all of the state's graduating high-school seniors. Experts have mostly praise for the proposal but raise some questions too.

In recent years, nearly every state in the nation has been scrambling to find cost-effective ways to help more students complete a college degree.

As policy makers and colleges grapple with how to attract and retain the growing population of low-income and first-generation college students to programs that prepare them for the 21st-century work force, a bachelor's degree, or both, the biggest conundrum has been how to do that without increasing the financial burden for either students or the states.

Gov. William E. Haslam of Tennessee this week proposed a relatively simple idea: Have the state pay the tuition and fees of all high-school graduates who want to go to a community or technical college for two years. The governor's plan, called the Tennessee Promise, would use state lottery reserves to create an endowment to pay for the program, estimated to cost about $34-million the first year, if it is approved by the General Assembly.

A bill is advancing in Oregon’s legislature to study a similar proposal.

Governor Haslam's idea is not entirely new, and it's no silver bullet. But it is gathering positive reviews from many higher-education experts who describe it as a bold plan that could have broad effects in the Volunteer State.

"Dramatic and game-changing ideas are needed to meet our nation's need for higher education, and we're glad to see them being proposed," Dewayne Matthews, vice president for strategy and policy at the Lumina Foundation, wrote in an email.

More Students

One major effect of the Tennessee Promise would be to encourage low-income students who might have been dissuaded from even applying to college because of the sticker price, said Mr. Matthews and others.

"We know that many potential students, especially underrepresented and first-generation ones, see college as unaffordable," Mr. Matthews wrote. "The Tennessee proposal addresses that concern very powerfully."

"Research has shown that an unambiguous 'promise' of higher education is highly motivational" for such students, he added, but such a promise "needs to be linked to clear messages about what it takes to be successful in college, and solid systems of student academic and social support to give students the best chance of success."

Stan Jones, founder and president of Complete College America, said the Tennessee Promise "broadens the audience" for college. It also would have an advantage over many states' Hope scholarship programs, which are merit-based, he said: "Some of the other scholarship programs are paying for kids who were likely to go to college anyway."

Not only is the Tennessee proposal likely to attract more students to college; it could also have a strong effect on the number of students who complete a degree, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges. Having the money to pay for college is often the key factor in whether a student completes a degree or drops out, he said.

Governor Haslam has set a goal of having 55 percent of the state's residents earn a college credential by 2025.

Less State Money

Most important, the Tennessee Promise could reduce the opportunity cost for many students who started at a four-year college and then dropped out before earning a degree. If they instead finished an associate degree or a technical program, they would be more likely to be prepared for the work force because many future jobs in Tennessee and other states will require less than a bachelor's degree.

If Tennessee Promise students progressed to a four-year college, they would also be saving about half the cost of a bachelor's degree and be less likely to incur major student-loan debt. Net tuition at the state's four-year public colleges is about $8,000 annually.

While the Tennessee Promise is meant to better prepare citizens for the needs of the state's economy, Governor Haslam, a Republican, has also emphasized that it will not be paid for with tax dollars.

In order to participate, students would first have to apply for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, and Tennessee would subtract any federal aid they received from what it paid. In other words, the program would pay only the cost of tuition and fees not covered by Pell or other federal grants.

Because many more low-income and first-generation students might be starting out at community colleges, the program could also help reduce the cost and inefficiency of remediation at the four-year colleges.

No Free Lunch

Governor Haslam's plan emerged from recommendations of his special adviser on higher education, the Knoxville businessman Randal D. Boyd. Key elements of the proposal resemble those of a nonprofit organization, tnAchieves, that Mr. Boyd helped found in 2009. The group has recruited volunteer mentors and raised enough private money to send more than 3,000 high-school graduates to community colleges across the state.

And like tnAchieves, the Tennessee Promise program would place requirements on students, such as enrolling in a college full time for up to five consecutive semesters, maintaining a 2.0 grade-point average, and completing eight hours of community service per semester.

With the help of local school districts or other groups, the state will also seek to recruit some 5,000 volunteers to serve as mentors for the prospective college students.

The Promise program would face several limitations. It would not apply to working adults. There just isn't enough state money to pay for that group of students, said Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the state's higher-education coordinating board. In order to participate, graduating high-school seniors would have to enroll in college in the following fall semester.

Immigrant students who are in the country illegally would also be ineligible to participate, according to a summary of the plan, because they would not be eligible for federal financial aid.

And some higher-education experts who had largely positive reviews of the proposal said they also had concerns. Mr. Baime, of the community-college association, wondered if the program would be able to cover its costs over the long run. In other states, scholarship programs supported by lottery proceeds have run into problems because the increase in lottery money could not keep up with the rising costs of college and increased participation in the programs.

In addition, a sudden influx of students could strain the capacity and infrastructure of Tennessee’s two-year colleges. And the state’s lawmakers would have to be dissuaded from considering the Promise money as a substitute for state appropriations to higher education, Mr. Baime said, since the lottery dollars are meant only to replace tuition.

Mr. Matthews, of the Lumina Foundation, said that the Promise program still might not be enough to entice very low-income students to go to college because it would not cover the cost of books, transportation, and the day care that some might need.

Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, said that even if Tennessee's program worked exactly as the governor and others hope, it would not necessarily provide a model for other states. "Unless other states structure lottery programs like Tennessee does, it cannot be replicated," he said.

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