As Democrats champion plans for free college, one GOP state has a model program

Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville_1557754456068.jpg.jpg

As Democratic presidential candidates promote billion-dollar plans to make college free on the campaign trail, affordable higher education advocates across the political spectrum are pushing a simpler approach: Look to the states.

One state in particular — a Southern, reliably Republican one — has risen above the rest, lawmakers, education and policy think tanks told NBC News: Tennessee.

The Volunteer State’s “Tennessee Promise” program, passed in 2014 by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, offers two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates. An expansion of the program adopted in 2017, called “Tennessee Reconnect,” guaranteed two years of free community college or technical school to all adults in Tennessee who didn’t already have a degree or credential.

Bill HaslamRepublican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 1, 2015, about his plan to grant more autonomy to six public universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.Erik Schelzig / AP file
“Regardless of what your politics are, you have to admit that income inequality is an issue. The question is what do we do about it. And I am a firm believer that a robust public education is the key. The great equalizer,” Haslam told NBC News in a recent interview. “If a good education is a requirement to enter the workforce, we have to give more people the opportunity do that.”

Tennessee’s program is considered a need-based “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that, after all other aid (including federal grants and scholarships) is factored in, the funding covers the remaining balance for tuition and mandatory fees. The program is available to all high school graduates, regardless of income status, and provides every student with a mentor to guide them through the application, financial aid and enrollment process. It also requires that all students complete eight hours of community service each semester, measures supporters say provide some accountability.

Tennessee Promise is funded entirely by an endowment that was created from the state’s lottery reserve fund. No tax increases were needed at any point, a crucial draw for state Republicans.

But even more critical to the program’s success was the fact that Haslam, who left office in January, framed it as an economic issue centered on job creation in his state — a strategy top education officials in Tennessee are encouraging national politicians to embrace.

“We needed more Tennesseans with a credential beyond high school,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission — the state’s de facto head of higher education.

The program has drawn plaudits from conservatives — who say that higher education policy is (and should be) governed principally by the states — and progressive groups, who have praised its simplicity and inclusivity.

While its “last dollar” nature makes it dependent on available federal aid — which would seem to inherently preclude it from being used as an exact model for a national plan — education experts say many of its chief tenets should still be part of any effort to reform higher education and higher education debt-related policies.

“There’s a real appetite among people to have an education that gets them into the workforce. And a free associate’s degree from a community college is a really amazing route to go,” said Jessie Ulibarri, the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive policy shop that helps draw up model state legislation that advances traditionally progressive issues.

“The idea of a free public education has broad appeal,” he added. “The fact that states like Tennessee are finding creative ways to do this shows that this doesn’t have to labeled just a progressive idea.”

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