College & Workforce Readiness

Tenn. Governor’s Plan to Make Community College Free Sparks Debate

By Caralee J. Adams — February 06, 2014 3 min read
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam framed his recent call for free community college as a bold move that would raise expectations for students and help employers looking for skilled workers.

Although the plan was welcomed in some circles, it also has drawn criticism. It comes as at least a couple of other states are exploring the same idea.

Following the Republican governor’s statewide address Monday, Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.) expressed strong concerns about Haslam starting a new community-college program, suggesting in a statement that it would undermine the state’s four-year Hope Scholarship program. Hope scholarships, funded by the state lottery, provide merit-based grants of up to $6,000 per year to eligible students at two- or four-year public or private colleges.

Cohen said the Haslam proposal would be a “raid” on the state’s lottery reserves and something that would “disincentivize high-achieving young people from enrolling at 4-year institutions of higher learning.” In his speech, the governor said the new initative could be funded with by transferring lottery reserve funds to create an endowment. Cohen said the surplus lottery funds would be better used to raise the income cap or the amount of awards given to middle- and low-income students now with existing scholarships.

David Baime, the senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges, said while there appears to be a lot of support for Haslam’s plan, he doesn’t know about its viability.

“The issue in terms of resources is whether money used to subsidize the tuition of all students mightn’t better be targeted on the neediest, or on the educational services provided by the college,” Baime said in an email statement to Education Week. “There is also always the question of long-term sustainability of the program.”

The idea of providing a community college education for free is also getting attention elsewhere.

This week in Oregon, a state legislative panel proposed a study to see whether it’s realistic to allow Oregon high school graduates to attend community colleges for free. Last year, lawmakers charged the state’s higher education commission to look into a different “pay forward, pay back” model. This plan would let students attend four-year universities for free, then repay the costs with a portion of their future earnings.

A Mississippi state legislative committee passed a bill last month that would make tuition free at all of the state’s community colleges for students who graduated from high school within 12 months of enrolling in college. The proposal next goes to an appropriations committee for review.

Meanwhile, in 2007, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick proposed that the state make community college free, but the measure never progressed.

California has been a pioneer in public support of community colleges. Until 1984, attending a two-year public college was free in California. Still, costs there remain relatively low.

For a short time in the 1970s, there was no tuition at the City University of New York . But that practice ended when the city hit a fiscal crisis.

Recently, state officials have tried other tactics to make college more affordable. Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida have urged public colleges in their states to offer a bachelor’s degree pathway that costs no more than $10,000.

What approach will gain traction and public support has yet to be seen. But as more research underscores the economic benefits of education beyond high school, states will likely continue to experiment with various ways to encourage students to pursue a degree—with a focus on overcoming the cost barrier.

A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.