College for all gains ground in Tennessee: "We don’t want cost to be an obstacle"

Tennessee aims to cover community college costs for all residents

Published August 21, 2017 4:58AM (EDT)


This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.


Starting in the fall of 2018, Tennessee residents without an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can attend community college for free.

Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Reconnect Act in May, making Tennessee the first state to provide tuition-free community college to its residents.

“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," Haslam said at the State of the State address in January. 

The Tennessee Reconnect Act allows adults to attend community college without paying tuition, adding on to Tennessee’s pre-existing Tennessee Promise scholarship that allows recent high school graduates to attend community college tuition-free.

Since Haslam pushed for the Tennessee Promise program in 2014, the idea of tuition-free college has spread to other states. Oregon has made community college free for recent high school graduates and GED recipients as well. San Francisco will make community college free for all residents starting in the fall. In April, New York made tuition free at two- and four-year colleges for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year. Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island recently signed a $2.8 million tuition-free program for the state’s only community college.

"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,” Haslam said.

Expanding the free-tuition program will cost about $10 million once fully implemented. Funding for the program will come from the state’s lottery proceeds.

Students will save about $3,700 a year, which is the average cost of tuition and fees at Tennessee's 13 community colleges. If they already receive a need-based Pell Grant from the federal government, Tennessee will cover any remaining cost.

To be eligible, students must have been a state resident for at least a year before applying, maintain a 2.0 GPA, enroll in enough classes to be a part-time student and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In 2013, Haslam launched the “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025. Last year, less than 39% of residents had gone to college.

The Tennessee Promise scholarship, which Haslam mentioned during his 2014 State of the State address, has covered the tuition for 33,000 high school graduates who attended community and technical colleges, raising enrollment among first-time freshmen by 30 percent, according to the governor's office.

“This is about jobs, it’s about math and it’s about the Tennessee we can be,” Haslam said at the signing ceremony for the Reconnect Act. “We know that by 2025, at least half the jobs in this state will require a college degree or certificate. Mathematically, there’s no way to reach that goal just by equipping high school graduates with degrees.”

By Nick Lingerfelt

Nick Lingerfelt attends the University of Memphis in the great city of Memphis, Tennessee. He is participating as a Young American at Salon to let some residents of coastal and "blue" states know their values are not as different from people in the heartland of America's as they might think. Also, Tennessee often gets written off as a solid "red" state, but the fastest-growing cities in this state, Memphis and Nashville, are liberal bastions with surprisingly diverse populations.

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