Free college might sound too good to be true amidst national concern over the rising cost of higher education, but that’s what Tennessee is promising its high school seniors. On Aug. 15, applications opened for the Tennessee Promise, a scholarship providing two years of free tuition at any of Tennessee’s community or technical colleges. Though some say it will jeopardize high-quality four-year programs and that getting students into college is still a far step from getting them to graduate, the program promises every student access to at least some level of post-secondary education.
The Tennessee Promise is a “last-dollar” scholarship, so it picks up the tab for all mandatory tuition and fees not covered by other scholarships, such as federal Pell grants. Gov. Bill Haslam proposed the program in his February “State of the State address” as a way to combat Tennessee’s unemployment rate: “If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs.” It’s part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the number of residents holding post-secondary degrees or certifications to 55 percent, up from 32 percent, by 2025.
Haslam proposed paying for the scholarship using reserve funds from the Tennessee lottery. “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless,” he said. But critics argue the Tennessee Promise draws money away from other scholarships and students away from four-year institutions.
The Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association (TICUA) issued a statement in February opposing Haslam’s proposal because it included decreasing Tennessee Hope scholarships—also funded by the lottery—offered to freshmen and sophomores at four-year schools. “Simply funding one new program by taking critical student aid from another is not the answer,” the statement says. Haslam personally called private college presidents “to ask how the proposal could be tweaked to their liking,” and agreed to reduce freshman and sophomore Hope scholarships by only $500 instead of the initial $1,000, according to Inside Higher Ed.
Still, four-year institutions worry the program will force them to change how they operate. Students who complete two free years at community colleges or colleges of applied technology can use Tennessee Transfer Pathways to begin a four-year school as a junior, reducing the cost of a bachelor’s degree by half. “While welcoming transfer students through generous transfer programs, the very nature and mission of many institutions may change with significant enrollment shifts” the TICUA statement warns.
Though different from Tennessee’s program, the Promise initiative in Kalamazoo, Mich., can shed some light on the effectiveness of free college. Anonymously funded, the program began in November 2005, providing 100 percent of college tuition for students enrolled in the Kalamazoo public schools since Kindergarten, and 65 percent of tuition for those enrolled since ninth grade. The scholarship helps full-time students earn up to 130 credit hours from Michigan public universities and community colleges and is available for up to 10 years after high school graduation.
The Upjohn Institute for Employment Research says Kalamazoo’s program has had positive effects on high school achievement, lowering the number of suspensions overall and causing a “dramatic increase” in African-American students’ GPAs.
And, six years after the program began, scholarship recipients began college “at a higher rate” than the average Michigan high school graduate, according to 2011 data from Kalamazoo Promise quoted by the Kalamazoo Gazette. But getting them to finish college was another matter—their dropout rate resembled the national average.
In an attempt to support degree completion, Tennessee Promise includes mentors who will guide and encourage students through college.
“Access is only successful when it leads to completion,” Haslam said.