Tennessee Offers Free 2-Year College Tuition for All High School Graduates

collegeUpdate 2015. The Tennessee Promise program has welcomed 15,000 students in their first year of offering free community college tuition. The number of students attending community college full-time straight from high school grew 14%. This Boston.com article includes an interesting quote:

“The reason Tennessee can afford Tennessee Promise is that 56 percent of our state’s community college students already have a federal Pell grant, which averages $3,300, to help pay for the average $3,800-per-year tuition,” said Tennessee State Sen. Lamar Alexander in a statement. “The state pays the difference–$500 on average. Nationally, in 16 states, the average Pell grant pays for the typical student’s entire community college tuition.”

Oregon has also recently passed their own free community college bill.

Original post from April 2014:

Tennessee lawmakers recently approved a program that would cover tuition and fees at two-year colleges for any high school graduate. The “Tennessee Promise plan” is the first of its kind in the U.S., although reportedly Florida, Mississippi, and Oregon are considering similar plans. It will be interesting to see if it succeeds in making higher education more affordable.

Participants will have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend mandatory meetings, work with a mentor, and perform community service. The program is also “last money in” after other scholarships and grants. I hope that they will also make sure that any credits earned will transfer over to 4-year universities and that the courses are rigorous enough that the students don’t arrive at a significant disadvantage. If successful, this could essentially halve the cost of a in-state Bachelor’s degree, as most students will be able to live at home for the first 2 years as well.

I went to a well-respected public university, and while there got to know several community college transfer students as both an undergrad and graduate student instructor. As a whole, I found them to be much more hard-working and excited about their studies. I don’t have hard numbers but I’d be willing to bet that the junior transfers actually got better grades than those of us who entered as freshman. (Obviously those who got accepted as transfers were a selected group, not representative of all community college students. They also tend to be older, which can help with maturity.)

Free community college may also reduce the significant number of people who enroll at a 4-year university, rack up student loan debt, and don’t finish. According to this Slate article, 20% of those who enroll full-time at a 4-year program don’t finish within 6 years. Community colleges can also have low completion rates, but it is especially awful to have no degree and a big pile of debt.

Also related: We know student loan debt is growing, but now delinquency rates are increasing as well.


  1. My memory of this is not solid but I believe Georgia gave a free ride at any Georgia state school to residents who maintained As and Bs in high school?

    That info may be out of date, but I think this is the program I’m talking about: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/us/07hope.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  2. A few years ago, and against great resistance from four-year universities, the Tennessee state legislature ordered the Tennessee Department of Education to ensure that all classes obtained at state run two-year colleges transferred to state run universities. It would seem like a no-brainer, but it took the legislature to make it happen.

    • I have over 230 semester hours from over 6 different 2 and 4 year schools. The problem isn’t them transferring. The problem is how they are applied to 4 year class requirements. Say I take History 100 and Geography 100 at a jc. The 4 year will take them, sure. But the 4 year may apply them as an elective meaning you have to retake the 4 year’s version of History 100 and Geography 100 but are “to the good” 2 elective classes at the 4 year school. Another thing, I took a jc history class along the lines of “History of America; Pre-Columbus” but the 4 year did not have a class for that specific subject so it was counted as an elective. I still had to retake a history class to fullfill requirements.

      You have to get a copy of the “transfer agreement” between the jc and 4 year school to see how each specific class will be transfered. Another example, I was taking a Sociology 100 entry class at a jc. Now, common sense is that a soc100 equates to a Soc100 (entry level) at a 4 year. Nope. The 4 yr school counted it as an elective forcing me to retake the identical class because the 4yr said the jc’s version was not up to par in quality. There was no difference in difficulty of work between the two.

      This is what I’ve learned in over 230 semester hours at those 6+ junior colleges, public 4 year’s, private 4 years, online schools and those free courseware classes you can take from Stanford etc… The quality of teacher and difficulty of work from a jc to a 4 year is equal. There is no difference in my vast experience. If anything, high school was much harder than many, many college level classes.

  3. Ken from Georgia says:

    At the risk of sounding like angry old right winger, I think this whole national discussion concerning tuition would be more accurately framed if the term “free” were banished and replaced with “tax payer provided” or “state subsidized.” I will concede that there is an issue of valid consideration as to whether it is in society’s best interest to provide college educations to qualified students — whether that be through grants, scholarships, or other direct payments. But in the interest of an honest national debate, lets admit up front that it is most definitely, most certainly not “free.” The sad thing is I believe many of the supporters of Bernie Sanders and others advocating this really to seem to believe it is free, reflecting an incredible lack of knowledge of basic economics.

    In response to WBH, when I went to community college in Florida many years, there was a very student-friendly system in place in which community college graduates were automatically deemed to have fulfilled all the basic liberal-arts core requirements of the four-year universities. Courses related to specific majors were evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I’m not sure that still is the case, but it made life easier for a lot of us.

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