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Where Obama's Free Community-College Plan Fails, Tennessee's May Succeed

The president's plan has met opposition or indifference, but the Tennessee program that inspired it is already catching on in other states.

Whatcom Community College
Students at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington.
Wikimedia Commons/
While many education leaders have praised President Obama’s proposal to offer free community-college tuition, the response from state-level officials -- who would have to sign on -- has been less enthusiastic. But the plan also spotlights a Tennessee program that stands a good chance of catching on in other states. 

Few specifics have been released, but the new proposed state-federal program would cover tuition for students enrolled at least half-time who maintain a 2.5 GPA and make “steady progress toward completing their program.” The federal government would cover three-quarters of the cost of tuition, with states picking up the rest and agreeing to reforms such as reducing remedial education and distributing a “significant portion” of funding on performance, not enrollment alone.

The plan would come at a cost of $60 billion over 10 years and would require congressional approval. Given the Republican Party’s hawkish attitude to spending, that could be a tall order. And even Republicans who support the idea that helped inspire it have come out firmly opposed to taking it national.

Most governors and legislators have yet to weigh in, but few have offered enthusiastic endorsements. The more common response has been curiosity, a wait-and-see-more-details approach. “We have to understand more before we can come to any kind of policy conclusion,” a spokesman for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The state is interested because the proposal aligns with its own priorities in higher education, the spokesman added.   

To be sure, though, there have also been states where legislators and the governor have been quick to declare Obama’s plan dead on arrival even if it passed Congress. “The governor said we’ll be tightening purse strings, not doling out more money based on what this administration is promising,” Arizona Sen. Kelli Ward, who heads the state's Senate Education Committee, told the Arizona Republic.  

But the idea was influenced in part by a policy that recently came out of a Republican-dominated state. Tennessee now has a program that offers free community college to those who maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, perform community service and meet other requirements. But unlike Obama’s plan, it’s a “last-dollar” program, meaning it covers remaining tuition costs after Pell Grants and other financial aid. 

That decision helps restrain costs, an estimated $34 million a year for a program that’s attracted some 58,000 applicants. Obama's plan would free up aid like Pell Grants for other uses, such as books and living expenses.

Programs covering tuition costs at individual colleges predate the Tennessee program, but it’s the first to do so statewide. Chicago has launched a program that has higher GPA standards but also covers books. Proposals similar to Tennessee’s have also appeared in states as politically divergent as Mississippi, Oregon, Texas and Minnesota. 

At least two states, Oregon and Minnesota, will debate fresh proposals this year. Texas likely won’t because of budgetary concerns, dwindling oil revenues and fear of supporting a policy that’s now connected with Obama, said Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist. 

Debate over the value of programs like Tennessee's has picked up over the last year. Some, such as Seton Hall University’s Robert Kelchen, have pointed out that, nationally, some 40 percent of community college students already have their tuition covered by other forms of aid. A major barrier is living expenses that are hard to cover while attending school. And in the case of a program like Chicago’s, which requires that students are totally ready for college-level math and English, the vast majority of graduating high school students in the area are likely ineligible. 

Some promising solutions, Kelchen said, include those of University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who has suggested focusing federal resources on tuition, state money on books and supplies and greater use of work-study programs to cover living expenses. 

But Kelchen also acknowledges the very factors that limit the effectiveness of Tennessee-style aid programs also make them more politically viable. “I think this will provide additional publicity and attention for the Tennessee plan at the very least, and I think others will take a look at this,” he said.

Sen. Mark Hass, a Democrat of Oregon, is betting on exactly that. He said he’s settling on covering only tuition at a cost of up to $25 million, though a study found the state could cover all expenses for about $250 million. 

The idea actually sprang from more conservative, rural areas of the state that have been paying for technical training at community colleges after the loss of lumber mill jobs that used to fuel the local economy, Hass said. “Those rural areas have acknowledged there’s no opportunity unless you have some technical training,” he said. “It’s not really a partisan issue; it’s people recognizing economic reality.”

Chris covers health care for GOVERNING. An Ohio native with an interest in education, he set out for New Orleans with Teach For America after finishing a degree at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. He later covered government and politics at the Savannah Morning News and its South Carolina paper. He most recently covered North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session for the Associated Press.
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