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The Enchanted Land Where Community College Is Free? Welcome to Tennessee in 2015

A new bill provides two years of tuition at a community college for participating high school grads who might otherwise face a 7.5 percent unemployment rate—and other states are already following suit.
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam promised his state something unprecedented: free community college tuition.

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The “Tennessee Promise” is now more than a promise: It’s a law Haslam signed in May. The bill provides two years of tuition at a community college or college of applied technology for any high school graduate who agrees to work with a mentor, complete eight hours of community service, and maintain at least a C average. High school graduates will start to reap these benefits in fall 2015.

Oregon Sen. Mark Hass is selling the idea to his state, too. He sponsored a bill that passed earlier this year to study whether a similar system in Oregon would work. The results should be out later this year.

Hass feels passionate about this bill because his generation didn’t have to deal with the same hardships as today’s young people. When he graduated from Tigard High School in 1975, his friends could score a job at a timber mill and make a decent living for the rest of their lives.

In 2013, by contrast, high school grads without a college degree faced an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, more than 2 percentage points higher than their associate-degree holding peers; their annual income was lower by more than $6,500.

Alabama and other states neighboring Mississippi are also looking into the idea.

If the outcome of the Oregon study is positive, the state is likely to follow in Tennessee’s footsteps and increase college enrollment and reduce poverty all at once through the free community-college system. The legislature will vote on the proposal during the 2015 legislative session.

“It won’t, by itself, eradicate poverty,” Hass says, “but I think it’s a very positive step in the right direction of not only reducing poverty but also meeting the needs of employers who are trying to find qualified people for jobs.”

Several of Mississippi’s community colleges already offer free tuition, but state Rep. Jerry Turner won’t stand for “several.” He wants to make all 15 of the state’s community colleges free. Turner authored a bill that proposed that idea, and though it died in committee earlier this year, it’ll be up for discussion again in January.

Alabama and other states neighboring Mississippi are also looking into the idea.

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research for the American Association of Community Colleges, expects efforts that address the cost of college will grow.

While he thinks these policies are positive, Baime worries about the less well-prepared students and the part-time students who work and will be excluded by full-time eligibility requirements. “Sometimes, the students who are sort of on the margin are left behind,” Baime says.

Kell Smith, the director of communications and legislative service for the Mississippi Community College Board, says full-time requirements encourage students not only to complete school but to complete it in a timely manner.

For now, it’s uncertain how these policies will affect students “on the margin” or whether Oregon or Mississippi will move forward with their initiatives. It’s certain, however, that Tennessians can now reap the benefits of a college degree—for free.


Yessenia Funes wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Yessenia is an editorial intern at YES!

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