In his State of the State, Governor Bill Haslam (R) proposed a plan that he called “The Tennessee Promise,” a program that would allow high school graduates to attend a community college or college of applied technology for free for the first two years. The governor suggested the state of Tennessee, which he noted is ranked as the top state in the country for academic achievement, could pay for the program with an endowment taken from the state’s lottery reserve.
“The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student from every kindergartner to every high school senior,” Haslam said to the Tennessee House chamber on Monday night. “If we want jobs for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs.”
The program could be seen as a model for tackling the high costs of college tuition in the country. Making college free may be more reasonable than many people think. The government currently spends over $104 billion on student loans and $22.75 billion through tax breaks and incentives aimed at making the cost of college more manageable. The estimated cost of the government providing free higher education ends up at around $127 billion, meaning it could come close to breaking even.
Such proposals could not come at a better time, as the cost of a public four-year college has risen 27 percent over the last five years. A record number of Americans have incurred student loan debt, with one out of every eight of those Americans in default.
Yet university graduates make as much as 85 percent more than the average high school graduate and currently experience an unemployment rate of only 3.8 percent compared to 7.6 percent for high school graduates.
“I think it’s very innovative,” said State Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R) who, along with other members of the Tennessee legislature, has expressed her approval for the program. “We’ll be the first state in the country to offer free college education.”
The proposal would also mean a change to the state’s current scholarship program, changing the amount received by a qualifying student in a four-year institution from $4,000 a year to $3,000 for the first two years and $5,000 for the latter two.