A plan announced this week by Tennessee’s governor to make two years of community college and technical school free for all students is a striking reversal of the trend of rising costs to attend public colleges since the 1990s in the face of declining state support.
Tennessee would be the only state to charge no tuition or fees to incoming students under the proposal by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, which policy analysts called a big step toward a better-educated workforce.
“This is the best idea to boost participation in higher education in a generation,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a major association of public and private colleges.
Haslam made it the centerpiece of his State of the State address Monday, 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. The change requires approval by the state legislature, whose leaders reacted favorably to the idea.
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“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor said Tuesday. “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 workforce.”
Community college is fairly inexpensive; a full year’s tuition and fees in Tennessee are about $3,800, and the national average is $3,300. Federal Pell grants and other scholarships make the net price zero, or a very small sum, for most students.
The cost to the state is fairly low — the governor estimated $34 million a year, paid for by diverting surplus revenue from the state lottery.
In addition to its 13 degree-granting community colleges, Tennessee has one of the nation’s most robust systems of vocational schools, the 27 Colleges of Applied Technology, which are a national leader in graduation rates. The governor’s tuition-free plan includes those technical schools.