USA First Look

Tennessee governor calls for tuition-free community college for adults

On the heels of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call for tuition-free state colleges in NY, Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam proposes extending his state's tuition-free community college offer to include older students.

Gov. Bill Haslam, center, shakes hands with Lt. Gov Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, after giving his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey/AP | Caption

The cost of a higher education in America has steadily risen for decades, with levels of college debt drawing criticism from politicians and students alike. Often, the high price of secondary degrees is prohibitive for lower-income individuals in an economy that increasingly requires a college education for workers to remain competitive.

In Tennessee, however, a new proposal aims to make a going to a community college a lot more affordable for adults seeking a secondary degree or certificate. The new price: free.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced the new program, called the "Tennessee Promise," at his annual State of the State address on Monday night. The measure is an expansion of the Drive to 55 initiative, launched in 2013, which aims to have 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans holding some kind of college degree or certificate by the year 2025.

"We need to reach the working mother that went to college but didn't complete, or the son with sons of his own who like his dad never went to college but knows that he needs to upgrade his skills," Governor Haslam said in the Monday speech. "Tonight, I'm introducing the next step in making certain that everyone in Tennessee has the opportunity to earn their degree."

In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to make community college free for graduating seniors. But while 645,000 high school students are expected to graduate over the next eight years, the goal of giving 55 percent of Tennessee residents a secondary education will require at least 155,000 adults to attend and graduate some kind of college with them, according to The Tennessean.

"Wherever you might fall on life's path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be," said Halsam. "We don't want cost to be an obstacle anyone has to overcome as they pursue their own generational change for themselves and their families."

The announcement of the program comes a few weeks after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to give free tuition for state and community colleges for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year earlier this month,  Harry Bruinius previously reported for The Christian Science Monitor:

The announcement [January 3rd], coming on the first official business day of 2017, was another clear signal that Democratic states like New York would be aggressively taking up the kind of liberal ideas that made Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, the darling of the left last year. In fact, Senator Sanders, who made free tuition a central plank of his presidential campaign, joined Governor Cuomo for the announcement, calling it a “revolutionary idea” that would “reverberate not only throughout the state of New York, but throughout this country.”

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As student debt – at $1.2 trillion nationwide and counting – surpassed credit card debt as the second largest source of consumer debt, making college more affordable has become an urgent concern.

But while many prominent Democrats champion affordable and even free higher education, Tennessee is a Republican state. Halsam, a Republican himself, has drawn rare bipartisan praise for the new education measure, a rare show of unity in an era where divisive politics have become the norm, particularly on the national level.

"Actually I had hoped that we would do that earlier," Tennessee House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh  told Nashville Public Radio. "But I'm glad to see him doing that now."

Along with Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota also have free community college tuition programs, with other states examining the feasibility of similar measures across the country. Funding for the Tennessee Promise will come from the state lottery, and is set to come before the General Assembly for approval later this year.