The Commercial Appeal

Tennessee Promise launched movement

Several states move to create similar programs


NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and his advisers like to say that Tennessee Promise changed the conversati­on parents and children have about going to college.

Three years after he introduced the landmark scholarshi­p program, it’s conversati­ons in statehouse­s around the country that are changing, placing the Volunteer State at the center of a national movement.

In 2014, Tennessee was the only state with a wide-reaching program that offered recent high school graduates the chance to go to community college without paying tuition.

Since then, several states — including Oregon, New York and Rhode Island — have followed that example, adopting or pursuing similar programs of their own. Former President Barack Obama pulled the issue into the national spotlight during a 2015 visit to Tennessee, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders thrust it into the heart of the presidenti­al campaign.

Experts say Tennessee’s role as a trendsette­r could help shape higher education policy for years as students move through the pipeline, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the increasing­ly popular model. The state’s move to expand tuition-free college to adult students, unveiled by Haslam last month during his State of the State address, seems certain to keep Tennessee at the forefront of the education debate.

“I like that states are coming up with their own paths for how to do this,” Haslam said in an interview with The Tennessean. “We’re excited about the progress we’re making in Tennessee and we think the results will prove that the effort is the right one.”

Early indicators have been encouragin­g. Last week, the state announced firsttime freshman enrollment in public higher education had increased by 13 percent since the program began enrolling students in 2014.

Tony Kinkel, president of Motlow State Community College, said he accepted his job and moved to Tennessee because he wanted to be a part of the Tennessee Promise roll-out.

Motlow’s Smyrna campus has become emblematic of the impact, with students parking on the grass and crowding classrooms to such a degree that the governor included funding in his latest budget proposal for a new building.

Kinkel said Tennessee Promise led to a swell of job applicatio­ns, too.

“The word is getting out that Tennessee’s a great place to work if you’re in higher education,” Kinkel said. “There is no state in the country, none, that’s going to be doing more.”

Haslam and others who have come to champion tuition-free college generally recognize a central problem. There aren’t enough educated applicants in the workforce to fill a new generation of technicall­y complicate­d jobs.

Confrontin­g that problem in Tennessee meant pumping hundreds of thousands of students into higher education.

The program was designed to tackle two issues that keep students from pursuing a college degree: cost and intimidati­on. The success and durability of the model here and elsewhere probably rests on one word that addresses both challenges. Free. It’s simple, it’s enticing and it presents a striking contrast to the traditiona­lly muddy messaging surroundin­g the applicatio­n for financial aid.

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