College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Tennessee Leaders Step Ahead With Free Tuition for All HS Grads

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 15, 2014 4 min read
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On Tuesday, Bill Haslam, Governor to Tennessee announced a new state program. Called the Tennessee Promise, it will guarantee two years of a community college or two years at a college of applied technology to all graduating high school seniors. An endowment to fund the program is being established by surplus lottery reserve funds. The graduating class of 2015 will be the first one eligible for the program.

There are all sorts of positives associated with Governor Haslam’s vision. Only 32.1% of the adult population of Tennessee have a college degree of some kind. This program is part of an initiative called “Drive to 55" with a stated goal of reaching 55% degree attainment by 2025. Data support the income impact of having a college degree and employers embrace the efforts to create well-prepared workforce. So, yes, he has just expanded the concept of public education to include K - 14...radical but exciting.

Questioned about whether it is “just another entitlement” program, he responds it is better to provide them on the front end of a person’s life and prepare them for self-reliance later on. It sounds to us as if it is more incentivizing than entitling. There is a responsibility embedded in the program. Eligibility depends on a student obtaining a high school diploma. Only if a student works hard and achieves that goal, does the state send her or him to college.

No wonder the evening news featured the excited junior at Stratford High School in Nashville. Her life changed today. Even if college was already in her future from this STEM Magnet School, she was looking at loans of all sorts. No more. No wonder the voice of Michael Steele, high school principal, was filled with optimism. Metro Nashville was among the first systems in Tennessee to accept the program.

Tennessee has done a lot of things right. They were one of the first two states to obtain approval of their Race to the Top funding in 2010. Like most other states, their plan included a new evaluation system focused on improvement of the performance of teachers and principals using student growth as one of the multiple measures. It wasn’t easy. They also took on a teacher equity problem that existed between their high-poverty/high-minority schools and the low-poverty/low-minority schools. They committed to partner with higher education in a college and career ready plan. They aligned their professional development to the needs of the teachers based upon student performance measures. They developed a course for pre-service teachers in the use of their TVAAS (Tennessee Value Added Assessment System). They committed to training teachers in the use of data to improve student achievement. Yes, they even adopted the Common Core Standards and became part of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Consortium. They dedicated themselves to turn around failing schools, and to the development of a STEM Innovation Network.

Stratford High School is one of Metro Nashville’s STEM magnet schools. The student interviewed for the news report will graduate from this high school, where she was given opportunities to engage in rigorous coursework, work with professionals in the field, conduct research, and learn in both a high school and professional environment. She admitted she would have to take on college loans but was determined to be a teacher. Metro Nashville has given her the education she needs, and given the experience she has had, left her wanting to join our ranks. Not all students get to that point and are ready to take on the huge college debt that she was. Not all students can. Some see the college debt crisis as a closed door. And who blames them? This is not an issue for those living in poverty alone. This affects most of our students considering college. Cost and debt are a factor.

A contrast to the Tennessee program is New York Governor Cuomo’s recent move to offer college, tuition free, to high school graduates who graduate in the top 10% of their class. It is part of his STEM incentive program. The two states have taken very different paths...one incentivizes everyone and one rewards the top. Governor Haslam has a bigger purpose. He understands leveling the playing field. Not all students fulfill their academic potential in high school and not all of them have the same home support systems. And certainly not all students can reach the top 10% of their class. But because of the skill and dedication of teachers and leaders in our schools, students can work hard and learn and graduate! So instead of rewarding those students who fit somewhere on a bell curve, Tennessee now says to all of their students, “If you graduate from high school, we will pay for you to attend your first two years of college.” Now that’s something.

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Correction: The Governor’s last name is correctly spelled Haslam. In an earlier version it was spelled Haslan.

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