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Plans for no-cost Community College Education: Free for All

Across the country, students are asking for decreased tuition in the face of increased debt and college loans. But for students in Tennessee, college is already free.

The Tennessee Promise program, which starts with the high school class of 2015, is a scholarship program for Tennessee students who are planning to attend a community college, technical school or 4-year institution and are pursuing an associate’s degree. 

“Parents and students view this as a game change and a culture change,” said Mike Krause, the program’s director. He has found the response to be “absolutely overwhelming.” 

Gov. Bill Haslam created Tennessee Promise after he traveled was traveling the state during the last election season and learned that job vacancies weren’t being filled because there weren’t any qualified workers to fill them. Haslam realized that in order to keep driving Tennessee’s economy forward, more people needed to graduate from college with degrees in areas that the state’s industries needed. 

The scholarship is awarded to students regardless of high school academic performance, but requires recipients to go to school full-time, maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per term. Though the scholarship doesn’t cover the full cost of attendance, only tuition and fees, the idea is that if it is supplemented with other aid, such as need-based federal grants, students can cover all costs. 

Though Krause has heard support from many people, he is particularly impressed with the support of local businesses. 

“Our business and employer leaders are fully onboard with the [...] initiative, and their reaction has been exciting,” Krause said. 

Tennessee Promise, which covers many costs for students, does not cost the state anything. 

"When you can tell a student that community college is free and the state is going to be there with you to cover these costs, you can really carry a new message to a group of students who had been maybe ruling themselves out of a college education." 

The program was created from money that has accumulated in the state’s lottery reserve and was put into an irrevocable trust account. The trust earns interest each year and is self-sustaining, so the program should always have funds available to meet students’ needs. This means every student who is promised a scholarship will receive it for at least four semesters, five if they need to take a remedial course. The self-sustaining nature of the trust will allow more students to receive scholarships each year.

“We want every student to go [to college] without question,” Krause said. “When you can tell a student that community college is free and the state is going to be there with you to cover these costs, you can really carry a new message to a group of students who had been maybe ruling themselves out of a college education.” 

While this program is only statewide, President Obama’s national plan, called America’s College Promise, has similar attributes. Students who are accepted to the program will have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, be enrolled at least half-time and be working toward a degree or transferring to a 4-year institution. 

Under this plan, the federal government will pay 75 percent of average community college costs while states pick up the other 25 percent. The average cost of community college per year is $2,713, according to the College Board. Students will still be eligible for other types of aid, including aid from the institutions themselves and other federal aid. Both Tennessee Promise and America’s College Promise aim to make education more widely available to American students. 

Several nations already provide college education for free, including France and Germany. Germany tried to take away free college education by charging its students a small fee in 2006, which resulted in public outrage. The introduction of fees was a political move, but the government soon realized there would be greater benefit for both the nation and its citizens by removing the fees and making college free again. 

“Tuition fees degrade the educational opportunities for bright young people from low-income families,” Gabriele Heinen-Kljajic, state minister for science in Lower Saxony, said to Germany’s parliament in regards to the cost of college. 

Both Tennessee Promise and America’s College Promise seek to make future generations of the American workforce more capable and prepared for the jobs they will be asked to do.  But there are questions about the effect this program will have on four-year institutions like AU. 

The average loan debt for graduating students in 2012 was $34,649, according to AU’s website. Sixty-five percent of students had to take out some form of loans in order to finish their education at AU. The admissions office was unavailable for comment about how free community college could potentially affect AU transfer rates or tuition.

If students will soon have the opportunity to earn degrees for free, or transfer from community college and only graduate with two years of debt, 4-year institutions may have to consider lowering their costs in order to continue drawing high numbers of students. 

Though the president’s plan is still in planning stages, Tennessee’s program provides hope that one day community college will be free to all American students.

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