Tennessee’s Haslam Proposes Free Community College For All

Since the 1990s, in the face of declining state support, public colleges have sharply raised their prices. However, a striking reversal of that trend is built into a plan by Tennessee’s governor to make two years of community college and technical school free for all students.

Under the proposal by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, which policy analysts called a step toward a better-educated work force, Tennessee would be the only state in the country to charge no tuition or fees to incoming students.

“This is the best idea to boost participation in higher education in a generation,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a major association of public and private colleges.

Calling for two years of free schooling for state residents with high school diplomas or equivalency degrees without regard to academic credentials or financial need, Mr. Haslam made the proposal the centerpiece of his State of the State address on Monday. Approval by the state legislature is required for the change, and leaders reacted favorably to the idea.

“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force.”

As Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times reports, community college is fairly cheap: a full year’s tuition and fees in Tennessee are about $3,800, and the national average is $3,300. The net price for students is made zero or a very small sum by Federal Pell grants and other scholarships. However, according to a policy researcher at the College Board and co-author of its annual report on college prices, Jennifer Ma, even for students who pay little or nothing, eliminating tuition and fees is financially significant because Pell and some other types of grants can be used to pay for books, supplies, travel and other costs.

“Tuition and fees are only part of the cost of attendance,” she said. “There’s an opportunity cost, because they’re giving up jobs, and there are other expenses.”

For students, the importance of his plan is not just economic, but also psychological, argued by Governor Haslam. Students may not be aware that the sticker price of college is not the true price, and explaining the difference can get complicated.

“It is more affordable than most people think, but if they don’t know that, that doesn’t help us,” he said. “If we can go to people and say, ‘This is totally free,’ that gets their attention.”

The governor estimated $34 million a year paid for by diverting surplus revenue from the state lottery, indicating the cost to the state is fairly low. To provide mentors to students to advise them on navigating college, the governor said the state would work with private foundations.

Additionally, Tennessee’s public colleges were called upon by Mr. Haslam to make a new effort to recruit the state’s nearly one million adults who have some college credits but ended their educations without earning degrees or professional certificates. Expanding a program that gives particular help to struggling high school students so they can go to college without needing remedial classes that do not earn college credit was also proposed by the governor.

Data shown that students who take remedial courses are far less likely to graduate.

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