Southern GOP governor leads free college movement

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is seen as a leader in the free college movement. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Gov. Bill Haslam)

A Republican governor from a deep red Southern state has emerged as an unlikely leader of the free tuition movement, winning converts across party lines by emphasizing the need for a better-trained workforce.

Now Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is pushing his state to become the first to make community college free to almost every adult.

Liberals and conservatives remain divided about how much taxpayer money should go toward ensuring more people graduate college. But a critical shortage of skilled, qualified workers is building rare bipartisan consensus that government needs to push harder to educate today’s workforce.

“The free college movement has gained support from the left and the right, albeit for different reasons,” said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). Liberals see free college as a social justice matter that benefits low-income students, he said, while conservatives see it as a way to bolster the workforce without significant spending.

Tennessee made history three years ago when Haslam pushed the passage of an education bill offering free community college to new high school graduates, a first in the country. That same legislation made state technical schools free to all residents, no matter how long ago they graduated.

Former President Barack Obama’s attempt to pass a similar federal program was a non-starter with Republicans in Congress, but several states followed with their own variations and more are considering them.

Haslam now wants an expansion — one that would make Tennessee the first state to offer free community college to nearly all adults without a post-secondary degree or certificate. The proposal still has to pass the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, but the House and Senate speakers have said the measure is expected to sail through.

Deangelo Sweat, a 20-year-old student at Nashville State Community College who was too old to apply for free tuition when he went back to school this semester, said expanding the program to older adults will help people like him.

“It will really change lives,” said Sweat, who is studying electrical engineering. “It can open up real careers for people.”

An opportunity for improvement

Haslam, whose family owns Pilot Flying J, said he understands what a college degree can mean to someone. When he announced the expansion, he spoke of his father, who started with one gas station and built the nation’s largest truck stop chain.

“My dad was the first in his family to attend college and get his degree, and the trajectory of his life — and mine — was changed forever,” Haslam said.

The expanded program would cost about $10.7 million, to be covered by lottery money, Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Mike Krause said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who fought for years to pass the lottery when he was a state legislator, has criticized using reserves to fund the free community college program. The lottery was created to fund academic scholarships at all the state’s colleges, and Cohen has said the community college program harms lottery scholarships at four-year universities because they aren’t able to grow with rising tuition.

Tennessee and other states pay tuition not covered by federal and state financial aid grants but don’t cover books, housing and other expenses — which can exceed the cost of tuition.

AASCU has opposed these types of scholarship programs because poor students who would already get free tuition through grant money don’t get additional benefits.

Spreading across the country

Since the Tennessee Promise legislation was enacted, Oregon and Minnesota have enacted free community college programs to recent grads, said Suzanne Hultin, an education policy specialist with the National Conference of States Legislatures. And Kentucky is set to launch its own version later this year.

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a plan to make the state’s community colleges and tuition at four-year public universities free to students whose families make less than $125,000. The program would also cover older adults.

“Haslam, I think, has made a mark,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “He’s arguably the education governor.”

The changing American workplace is nudging states toward these measures, Carnevale said.

“Education policy is our employment policy because we now live in a world where 60 percent of the jobs require some kind of education or training after high school,” Carnevale said.

Krause said the free programs are making progress. State figures show 33,000 new high school graduates have taken advantage of the free community college program and first-time freshman enrollment has increased 30 percent since the program began.

“But there is still a lot to do in terms of making sure that when a company is hiring it is not interviewing 400 people for two vacancies,” Krause said. “We’re making sure we’ve got the right talent to attract the right employers.”

Policy analyst Mary Clare Reim at the Heritage Foundation‘s Center for Education Policy said the conservative think tank agrees that more workers should be trained to fit employers’ needs but thinks giving businesses more say in the curriculum at schools makes more sense.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is that a lot of these programs that remove the financial incentives too much tend to put a downward pressure on quality and tend to shift a lot of financial burdens on taxpayers,” Reim said.

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