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Tennessee’s Free College Program Is Popular, But Will It Succeed?

As states consider following Tennessee’s footsteps, they’ll be closely watching its experience.

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The Williamson Campus of Columbia State Community College admitted its first students in September.
(Photos by David Kidd)
From the scent of linoleum to the unopened café where equipment is still being unboxed, everything about the Williamson Campus of Columbia State Community College feels brand-new. And it is. The Tennessee school, located in a Nashville suburb, is the newest community college campus in the state.

But in August, a week before the first semester started, administrators were already worried about overcrowding. The three-building campus was about to welcome 1,800 students, far more than originally planned. In the run-up to the new year, college director of communications Amy Spears-Boyd was advising students to allow themselves plenty of extra time to get through the crowded campus. “I’m really thinking you need to get here about 45 minutes early,” she told one incoming freshman. “I’m worried about you not getting a parking spot.”

All across Tennessee, community colleges are seeing record numbers of students this fall, thanks to a simple but sweeping promise from the state: free college education for everyone. This is the second school year that incoming college freshmen in the state can attend community college without paying any tuition, thanks to the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act of 2014. 

The promise of free higher education has become a popular idea of late. Last year, President Obama unveiled a plan to make community college free across the nation. The “America’s College Promise” proposal would federally fund 75 percent of community college tuition, with states ponying up the rest. In July 2015, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, then introduced “America’s College Promise Act of 2015,” incorporating Obama’s plan into legislation. It has yet to go anywhere.

But Tennessee was the first place to act. With a conservative Republican governor and an even more conservative legislature, Tennessee doesn’t often align with the policy proposals of the Obama administration or liberal Senate Democrats. But universal college access is a goal that seems to bridge partisan divides. In fact, Obama hailed Tennessee’s program as a model, and he traveled to Knoxville to announce his national college proposal.

Free college is a straightforward notion, but a complicated one to implement. Figuring out how to structure the plan was a challenge, as was convincing conservative lawmakers to fund what many of them considered an entitlement program. Whether the initiative is a success -- and how campuses are going to handle the influx of new students -- won’t be known for years. But for now, says Gov. Bill Haslam, who was the architect and chief proponent of the plan, the state had no choice but to act. The rising cost of higher education was making college unattainable for more and more students. “We are either going to give these kids a second chance now, or I don’t know when we will,” Haslam says. “These kids keep getting left behind.”

Haslam had first experimented with free higher ed as the mayor of Knoxville, where he served two terms before being elected governor in 2010. His “Knoxville Achieves” initiative began offering free tuition to the area’s three community colleges in 2008. Funded by philanthropic donations, it offered scholarships to lower-income Knoxville students to help them go to college with no tuition costs.

As governor, Haslam wanted to expand the Knoxville program statewide. The state already had the HOPE scholarship, a lottery-funded scholarship that helped defray expenses at all public colleges and universities in the state. But it hadn’t had an impact on who was actually enrolling in higher education, Haslam says. “We’ve had the HOPE scholarship for eight years, and we weren’t increasing the number of Tennesseans who were going to college,” he says. “We were making college affordable for the middle- and upper-middle-class families. But we weren’t actually expanding the number of students going to college.”

The way to accomplish that, he believed, was a blanket promise of tuition-free community college for every student in the state. In addition to increasing enrollment, Haslam saw the initiative as a chance to shift Tennessee’s reputation in the education and business communities. “We haven’t always been thought of as the most educationally advanced state,” he says. Increasing the number of college grads in the state, he believes, could attract new businesses and boost the state economy.

He sent a proposal to the legislature, where several members balked at what they saw as a government handout. Haslam agreed that he didn’t want the state to simply say, “Here’s another free thing.” So he and other lawmakers added conditions and requirements to the plan. Students would have to attend informational meetings while still in high school. Once in college, they’d have to complete eight hours of community service per semester, stay enrolled full-time and maintain a 2.5 GPA. That way, the Promise program wouldn’t just get more students in the door. It would, they hoped, also be a way to boost student achievement. 

Perhaps most crucially, Tennessee Promise was designed as a “last-dollar” scholarship, meaning that the money only kicks in once a student has exhausted all his or her other options for scholarships, HOPE money, financial aid and federal grants. Lawmakers compromised on how to fund the program, which costs about $34 million a year. Some of that money comes from existing lottery reserves, and some comes from funding cuts to the HOPE scholarship, with students at four-year universities receiving about $250 less per semester. The Promise program went into effect in fall 2015.

Because it’s structured as a last-dollar program, Promise varies widely in terms of what it pays out to students. George Van Allen, the president of Nashville State Community College, says he has seen awards to students as low as $14 and as high as $2,000. But overall, he says, the program has been a boon to students who might otherwise have had to forgo college. And it’s had a positive effect on the schools themselves. “The governor has made it clear that community colleges are a critical part of the educational system,” Van Allen says. “This has impacted the morale of community colleges. There’s a sense of importance that has never been associated with two-year colleges.”  


Nashville State President George Van Allen: "The governor has made it clear that community colleges are a critical part of the educational system… There's a sense of importance that has never been associated with two-year colleges."

Most people regard the promise of free college as a good thing, a step forward in ensuring opportunities for more students. But there are some drawbacks and restrictions to the Promise program. For one, it only applies to graduating high school seniors, meaning older nontraditional students -- who make up the bulk of enrollment at many community colleges -- won’t benefit. And while they’re often billed as a way to help low-income kids go to school, last-dollar programs like Promise tend to help middle- and upper-middle-class students the most, since the poorest students already qualify for other federal aid, such as Pell Grants.

The full-time enrollment requirement is another hurdle for many students. Free tuition certainly makes college more affordable, but tuition is hardly the only cost a student incurs. There are textbooks, fees, transportation costs, living expenses and other unforeseen needs. For many lower-income students, the only way to pay for all that is to work full time. That can be difficult to do while also attending school full time, not to mention the Promise program’s mandated volunteer hours.

Those and other strains can cause students to drop out or delay graduating for years. Nationally, 29 percent of students in two-year community colleges obtain a degree within three years. For students in the Knoxville precursor to Tennessee Promise, the rate was lower: Only 23 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2011 and enrolled in college through the Knoxville program had graduated by 2014.

Community colleges tend to have open-door policies, meaning they’ll accept any student, whatever his or her academic background. “You got a 10 on the ACT? Come on in, we’ll take you,” says Shanna Jackson, associate vice president for the Williamson Campus at Columbia State. But a low score on the college readiness test means that student is bound to struggle with college-level classes. As Jackson says, “We have to put more resources into supporting students not just with academics but with balancing the real-life aspect of going to school -- making sure students aren’t dropping a class they aren’t doing well in, for instance, since they’ll lose their scholarship.” 


Shanna Jackson of the Williamson Campus: "We have to put more resources into supporting students not just with academics but with balancing the real-life aspect of going to school."

To that end, Tennessee Promise provides support to help ensure each student is equipped to maintain her scholarship status. Every Promise student is assigned a mentor during their senior year in high school -- a volunteer who helps students through the application process. This year, the state also began providing some counselors to Promise students on a few college campuses, making sure they are keeping up with their volunteer hours and maintaining full-time enrollment, along with any other hurdles they have to clear.

Despite the challenges, the Promise program has already proven extremely popular. The number of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a prerequisite for anyone seeking Promise funds, has skyrocketed. For the past two years, Tennessee has led the nation in FAFSA applications, with 70 percent of high school seniors filling one out. Enrollment in community colleges statewide rose about 6 percent in the program’s first year. In some pockets, the increase was even more dramatic. Within the five-school Columbia State system, which now includes the just opened Williamson County campus, full-time enrollment shot up 23 percent last fall. First-year retention numbers are promising, too: Retention from the fall to the spring semester was around 80 percent.

(Those enrollment spikes prompt questions about other potential challenges down the road. Is the state prepared to invest in additional professors and administrative staff? Will campuses need to expand -- or will more new campuses need to be built -- to accommodate an increasing student population? Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, says the uptick in enrollment will actually level out what had been sagging rates at the state’s community colleges. But overcrowding is definitely on the state’s radar, he says. “We have provided funding pools for campuses specifically to address Promise student success.”)

The idea of free higher education -- and the role that community colleges play in the higher ed system -- may be at a tipping point across the country. “We’re watching it happen now,” says Martha Parham, with the American Association of Community Colleges. “Since Promise, more free or low-cost community college programs have been cropping up every week.” Oregon started offering free community college with a last-dollar scholarship this fall. Minnesota passed legislation to provide free tuition to high-demand technical schools also starting this fall. The Kentucky Legislature passed a bill similar to the Tennessee Promise this year, although it has been put on hold by Gov. Matt Bevin.

Van Allen, the Nashville State Community College president, says these different initiatives are the beginning of a profound rethinking about the value of community college within the pantheon of higher education. “It’s not in our middle-class culture to send kids to a community college -- parents still want to send their kids to a four-year university for that full ‘college experience,’” he says. “But as long as governors and presidents keep talking about the importance of community college, it’s going to happen eventually.” 

That’s fine by Cassie Trabucco. A freshman at Columbia State’s Williamson Campus, Trabucco says she knows exactly what she wants for her career. She’s already an experienced choral and theater performer -- she’s been in 39 shows and musicals so far -- and she wants to further her career with classical training. After two years at Columbia State, she plans to transfer to a liberal arts school with a strong theater program. But she refuses to borrow money to pay for that education. “This isn’t a profession where you want to be in a huge amount of debt,” she says.


Freshman Cassie Trabucco plans to transfer to a liberal arts school with a theatre program after two years at Williamson.

Trabucco -- like a growing number of other students -- sees community college as a way to “get my general education classes out of the way” before focusing on the courses she really wants to take. And having Promise funds to cover tuition, she says, “has given me peace of mind that I don’t have to go and waste money at a conservatory for just my general education classes.”

For Gov. Haslam, the Promise program doesn’t just help students like Trabucco. It’s also an investment in the state’s future, an attempt to help bridge the gap that has made higher education an unattainable goal for many in the state. “You can’t argue that income inequality isn’t a big issue, no matter your politics. It simply is,” he says. “Some people think we can tax our way out of that, or redivide the income pie. I would say that our best hope of getting out of this is giving equal opportunity to education.”

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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