Education officials are waiting to hear more details after Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would like to create a free community college system in Tennessee.
Haslam unveiled the initiative during his State of the State address. The governor said his proposal, estimated to cost $34 million per year, would cover a full ride at two-year schools for any high school graduate.
The proposal sounds promising, but creates a number of questions. It’s important to note a similar program proposed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen never made it through the state Senate in 2007.
“I’m very excited about the opportunities this could provide, but I need to see more of the details,” said Motlow College president Dr. Mary Lou Apple. “I know when the lottery was created, one common thought was everyone in Tennessee would get an education because of the lottery, but we see it didn’t work out that way. I think this is great in that it may help people who have never been helped before, but I don’t know enough specifics at this point.”
Warren County High School seniors are asked a few exit questions prior to graduation. Based on information provided by 2013 graduates:
• 31 percent planned to attend a four-year college
• 31 percent planned to attend a two-year college
• 28 percent planned to join the workforce
• 5 percent planned to attend a technical school
• 5 percent planned to join the military
One of the big unknowns of Haslam’s plan is how free tuition at two-year schools might shift enrollment numbers. If a student can attend Motlow for free, or spend thousands to take similar classes at MTSU, the community college system could be swamped with new students.
Our Motlow College campus in McMinnville expanded in 2008. Enrollment since expansion has usually been between 950 and 1,000 students, according to local college director Melody Edmonds.
The governor’s proposal of free tuition at community colleges is much like one already in place in Warren County. Local businessman Todd Herzog was among a group that started the Citizens for Progress Scholarship in 2007.
The Citizens for Progress Scholarship is available for local residents to attend Motlow or the Tennessee College of Applied Technology mostly free of charge.
“It’s tuition free, but we’re a last-dollar based scholarship so the students have to come up with at least $400 of their own money,” said Herzog. “To date we’ve awarded close to $300,000 in scholarships and raised $400,000. The whole concept behind starting this was to support gradual improvement in the education of our county.”
The Citizens for Progress Scholarship Fund gets money from private donations and some government contributions. It has two major annual fundraisers, a pro-am golf tournament at WillowBrook and gospel singing at WCHS auditorium.
Haslam touts his plan as the only one in the country that would waive all tuition and fees for high school graduates entering a two-year college. Haslam said he hopes the plan will improve Tennessee college graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 with the idea of attracting employers to the state.
Haslam says his administration is “committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”
One source of contention for Haslam’s plan is it would lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,000 for freshmen and sophomores, but increase it to $5,000 for juniors and seniors. The move is meant to encourage students to consider going to two-year colleges first.
A consequence of such a system, if implemented, might be shrinking enrollment at four-year schools, which are already struggling to contain soaring tuition increases.