Free community college could be just around the corner

Welcome to Tennessee sign

Would higher education change if the first two years of college were free? That's the question bouncing around colleges and state legislatures alike as families brace themselves for yet another year of high college costs. While students race to figure out how to deal with the financial burden — the average 2012 graduate who borrowed to pay for their education left campus owing nearly $30,000, according to the Project on Student Debt — individual schools and a small handful of states are taking steps to offer a tuition-free community college education to all in-state residents. Tennessee is leading the pack with the recently passed Tennessee Promise, a program that provides free tuition and fees at any of the state's public community or technical colleges for resident high school graduates starting in fall of 2015.

Bridging the financial gap

"Thirty-three percent of Tennesseans have a post-secondary credential. … By 2025, we'll have to be to 55 percent" to keep up with workforce demands, says Mike Krause, the program's executive director. "We've got some ground to make up for sure in the next 11 years, and we think the Tennessee Promise is a key part of that, not just as a financial aid instrument but as a culture change, as a way for students at an early age to begin to internalize that they are going to college. … We think that makes a big difference."

The "gap-funded" initiative, which is designed to fill the financial chasm between the cost of tuition and what state and federal grants cover, comes with a $34 million estimated annual price tag and will be funded through state lottery proceeds. To qualify for the Tennessee Promise, students must attend college full-time, meet periodically with an assigned mentor, complete eight hours of volunteer service per term, maintain a 2.0 GPA and apply for federal financial aid each year.

"The student we're really thinking about right now is the student that isn't entering higher education," Krause says. "This is the student who really has been sitting around a kitchen table and saying, 'I can't afford college,' and so they just don't even bother …"

Community college and the public interest

The college attainment rate in Tennessee is just barely below the national rate. While the U.S. once had the highest percentage of adults with college degrees, the country has dropped to No. 16 worldwide, with less than 40 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds boasting a postsecondary degree, reports the Department of Education.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require some level of college education, leaving a shortfall of approximately 5 million jobs for degree-holding employees who don't exist. A handful of individual towns, such as Kalamazoo, Mich.; El Dorado, Ark.; and Pittsburgh offer their own free two- and four-year college initiatives. In addition, several states, including Oregon and Indiana, are considering launching statewide programs similar to the Tennessee Promise.

"[Those proposals] get us thinking about what it is that we believe the public responsibility for educating its population really is," says George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Pernsteiner adds that as the educational requirements on many positions increase, in may be in states' interests to consider some higher education a public good. "… It is an important question to raise: Are we at the point where the need for skills, the need for education generally across the population, has grown to the point that we begin to look at the community college the way we looked at high school in the 1950s?"

Boosting access to higher education

To keep up with the changing global marketplace, increasing access to higher education is a must, and helping with tuition could go a long way in achieving that, says Tim Fernandez, director of Tulsa Achieves, an initiative at Tulsa Community College that pays tuition and fees for up to 63 credit hours for any high school graduate living in Tulsa County, Okla. Since launching eight years ago, the gap-funded program has provided financing for more than 10,000 students and increased community college attendance of county residents by more than 50 percent.

"I get a lot of realtors' calls … and one of the things they want to sell the people moving into this northeast Oklahoma area is the fact that your children can have two years of college for free," Fernandez says. "… There's a benefit of having more of your local high school graduates in the area attaining a higher degree and then coming to work in the Tulsa area and contributing to the tax base."

Paying for these programs is the tough part, particularly on the heels of years of state higher education budget cuts. Tulsa Achieves is primarily funded through county property taxes, though Fernandez says that the increased enrollment numbers help fill in the fiscal gap by making the school eligible for increased federal and state support. Other programs, such as Michigan's Kalamazoo Promise and Arkansas' El Dorado Promise, are funded through private donations.

Mike Krause of Tennessee Promise says that his program's gap-funded approach, which requires students to apply for federal and state financial aid every year, can substantially reduce the total cost the state pays to fund a free two-year college initiative, making the proposition more fiscally feasible. Krause doesn't have estimates on the number of students expected to enroll in 2015, but he does believe that the Tennessee Promise will help bring in historically disadvantaged populations who may have skipped higher education otherwise.

"I think it's going to change our campus culture, quite frankly," he says, "and we're excited about that."


El Dorado Promise,

Tim Fernandez, Director of Tulsa Achieves, Interviewed by the author on July 10, 2014

"New study finds there will be 55 million job openings by 2020," Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, June 2013,

"Average Student Debt Climbing: $29,400 for Class of 2012," Project on Student Debt, The Institute for College Access & Success, Dec. 4, 2013,

Kalamazoo Promise,

Mike Krause, Executive Director of Tennessee Promise, Interviewed by the author on July 11, 2014

"Senate Bill 1524: Relating to community college costs, declaring an emergency," The Oregonian, Feb. 27, 2014,

George Pernsteiner, President of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Interviewed by the author on July 11, 2014

Pittsburgh Promise,

Drive to 55: Tennessee Promise, State of Tennessee,

Tulsa Achieves,

"New State-by-State College Attainment Numbers Show Progress Toward 2020 Goal," U.S. Department of Education, July 12, 2012,

"Indiana debates free tuition for community colleges," Stephanie Wang, The Indianapolis Star, July 6, 2014,