As part of his annual state of the state address (this is state of the state season, by the way, a time when governors across the nation present their ideas for policy in the rest of the year) Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, proposed making his state’s community college system tuition free. Well, free for recent high school graduates anyway.


As Haslam (above) put it:

As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible. For many Tennessee families, cost is the biggest hurdle to further education.

That’s why tonight I am really excited to announce the “Tennessee Promise.”

The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior. We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.

While traditionally many states provided free community college, today all of them charge some tuition. Tennessee would be the first to entirely eliminate tuition and fees for students. The governor also announced a plan for adults attending community college, which he explained as “scholarships for all adults – regardless of age or previous qualification… – to attend our TCATs free of charge.”

This is an interesting plan. The governor proposes to do all of this without increasing taxes.

He’s aware that promising free college and then leaving the program up to annual legislative budgets ensures that the program won’t stay free for long. He plans to pay for this with an endowment. Specifically, he wants to move the state lottery’s reserve funds (sure makes more sense than just having a great big lottery, right?) over to fund the program, which should cost about $34 million in the first year.

Many other states, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, in particular, use the lottery systems to fund higher education, but money there is usually restricted to particularly high achieving students. This plan would apply to all recent high school graduates in the state who attend community college.

While there’s some assurance that eventually there will be scholarships for working adults, the promise there is a little more ambiguous, despite the fact that the majority of community college students are working adults.

In addition, some critics expressed concern that the Haslam proposal would not cover long-term costs of higher education. Other states that have tried to fund education with lottery programs have found that lottery proceeds simply do not rise to cover the ever-escalating cost of college.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer