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Tennessee Governor Proposes Two Years of Free Community College

In his State of the State address this week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam proposed making two years of community college available for free to every high school graduate in the state.

The new "Tennessee Promise" initiative, in enacted, would remove what the Republican governor said is the biggest hurdle to higher education: Cost.

Under the program, the state would pay all tuition and fees for two years at a community college or a college of applied technology. For those who transfer to a four-year university, the plan could cut the cost of a degree in half.

"Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education and we are raising our expectations as a state. We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee," the Gov. Haslam said in his remarks Feb. 3.

For the program to be a true promise to students, Haslam said funding can't be tied to annual budgets. So he proposes paying for it through an endowment set up with lottery reserves. Non-profit, private organizations would be part of the program to provide mentors to help navigate the enrollment process, as well as provide support during the school year, under the proposal.

"Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless," said Haslam.

The new program would be part of Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative aimed at increasing the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school to 55 percent by 2025.

J. Noah Brown, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, said in email that he had to smile when he saw the announcement this morning.

"In 1947, the Truman Commission proposed to 'create a K-14 system that was both universal and free.' Could this be the start of the Commission's dream?  Long time coming in my opinion," he wrote. 

Brown added that similar initiatives have been proposed in Oregon and Massachusetts, but never became policy.

Promise programs have been established elsewhere, but more often on a city-wide scale. The District of Columbia is considering paying up to $60,000 of college expenses for high school students with public funds. Promise programs in New Haven, Conn., and Kalamazoo, Mich. use private funding.

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