On January 30, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced his plan to make community college free for all adults. Following in the footsteps of 2015 legislation that made it free for high-school graduates, the legislation would make Tennessee the first US state to offer tuition-free higher education to everyone, regardless of income or academic background.
The proposal will be put to a vote in the state’s General Assembly later this year.
“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 in the address, as first reported by the Tennessean.
The legislation is known as the Tennessee Reconnect Act. It expands the existing Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which has allowed 33,000 new high-school grads to pursue community college or technical college since its inception a few years ago.
More than 2 million adults would be eligible for the program.
Haslam has been a vocal advocate for education since becoming governor in 2011. Under his watch, Tennessee adopted the Drive to 55 initiative in 2013, which set the goal of awarding 55% of the working-age population post-secondary degrees or certificates by 2025.
As the Tennessean reports, most of the 871,000 people included in that goal will be recent high school graduates. Adults who went straight into the job market, either because they chose to pursue a career or couldn’t afford school, would need to make up the remainder.
The state expects to spend $10 million a year in scholarships, which will be awarded to anyone who doesn’t hold a college degree or certificate. The scholarship pool will get financed through a combination of state lottery earnings and federal Pell grants.
Lawmakers in other states have considered versions of Haslam’s proposal, though none as far-reaching.
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed free tuition to public colleges for residents whose families earn less than $125,000. And in Oregon, State Senator Mark Hass pushed through a bill in 2016 called Oregon Promise, which was modelled after Haslam’s 2014 law.
If Tennessee becomes the first state in the nation to offer tuition-free college, other states might not be far behind.