This State Will Offer Free College Tuition To High School Graduates


Students walking across campus at the University of Vermont.

On Tuesday, Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill that will make tuition free for all high school graduates who go to a two-year college. It now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam (R)’s desk, who has made it a signature part of his campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

Beyond graduating from high school, students who participate in the Tennessee Promise program will have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend mandatory meetings, work with a mentor, and do community service. After they graduate two-year colleges, they can enroll in a four-year school as juniors.

The program, which is expected to cost about $34 million a year, will be paid for using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and by creating a $47 million endowment. The bill also lowers the state’s current scholarship for four-year colleges, which is funded with lottery money, from $4,000 to $3,500 for freshmen and sophomores, although it will increase to $4,500 for juniors and seniors.

Tennessee will be the first state to offer free college tuition, although Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon are considering similar plans. Others have looked at so-called “pay it forward” plans that allow students to attend community colleges or public universities at no cost but require them to pay a certain portion of their income after graduation — one model would have community college students pay 1.5 percent of their incomes for 20 years after graduation.

But the federal government could go even further than any of these states. For the amount that it already spends on subsidizing the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds — or about $69 billion — it could instead make tuition at all public colleges free for about $63 billion. (The government spends another $107.4 billion on student loans, given it even more funds to use for this purpose.) While not everyone would attend a public university, it would incentivize private ones to lower costs in order to compete with the free option.

All of these plans come at a time when the cost of going to college has risen dramatically, shooting up 27 percent at a public four-year college and 13 percent at a private school. To help finance their educations, more and more students are taking on debt, but many of them end up in default.