Tenn. governor Bill Haslam hatches bold "free" tuition plan

8:19 PM, Feb 4, 2014   |    comments
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly on Monday in Nashville. (Photo: Mark Zaleski AP)



(USA TODAY) Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal to waive tuition for students at community colleges and technology centers reflects heightened interest among state leaders to not only keep college affordable but also boost the number of college graduates.

Haslam's proposal, unveiled Monday in his State of the State Address, would create an endowment from the Tennessee Education Lottery to cover tuition and fees for community and technical colleges for all graduating high school seniors in the state.

In his speech, Haslam, a Republican running for re-election this fall, acknowledged growing concerns about the rising cost of college. But the larger message focused on the importance of an educated workforce, says Jim Hermes, associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

"It's certainly a bold move in terms of sending out the signal that at least some postsecondary education is essentially required these days," Hermes says.

Several states, including Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina, use lottery money to provide college scholarships based on academic merit. Tennessee also offers a merit-based scholarship. Haslam's proposal, dubbed the Tennessee Promise, differs in that it would guarantee free tuition for all of the state's high school graduates at Tennessee's community and technical colleges.

Haslam's approach also differs from challenges made in recent years by governors of other states. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, both Republicans, have pushed their states' public colleges to develop bachelor's degrees costing no more than $10,000.

Oregon lawmakers last year passed a bill directing state higher education authorities to look into a "Pay It Forward" pilot program under which students at public universities and community colleges would pay no tuition upfront. Instead, they would pay a small percentage of their income for 20 years to "pay forward" the cost of instruction for the next generation of students. New Jersey lawmakers also have discussed a similar plan.

Haslam said his proposal would make Tennessee the only state in the country to offer such a guarantee.

But it wouldn't be the first. The California Community Colleges system was free until the 1984-85 academic year, when students were charged $5 per credit. The City University of New York dropped all tuition charges for a brief period in the 1970s, but that was discontinued when the city's fiscal woes worsened.

In 2007, during his first year as Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, a Democrat, proposed that the state's community colleges be free to all high school graduates by 2015. That plan, too, lost steam as the economy worsened.

The Tennessee initiative is part of Haslam's "Drive for 55" campaign to raise the proportion of Tennesseans with a college degree or advanced certificate to 55% by 2025 from a current level of 32%.

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

(Contributing: Chas Sisk of The (Nashville) Tennessean; WBIR-TV, Knoxille; the Associated Press)

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