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A 'Tennessee Promise' To Educate The State's College Students


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. This spring, along with NPR's Morning Edition, we're helping you navigate the higher education money maze with our "Paying for College" series.

We've heard about how college got so expensive and how families and students are taking on massive loans to pay for it. But today, we want to talk more about an effort to make college not just affordable, but free.


GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM: 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.


HEADLEE: That was Gov. Bill Haslam announcing the Tennessee Promise at his State of the State address earlier this year. Tennessee lawmakers green-lit the plan last week, and the state plans to implement it in 2015. Here to give us more information, Richard Rhoda. He is the executive director of the state's Higher Education Commission. Richard, thanks for joining me.

RICHARD RHODA: Celeste, thank you. Pleasure to be with you.

HEADLEE: First, you know, I wondered if you could comment on why this got such strong support from so many lawmakers and such an overwhelmingly positive vote on this? How did this particular plan become so popular?

RHODA: Gov. Haslam took this on as a cause. And this was very much a part of his agenda, which you heard from his State of the State address. By the way, I was one of those cheering at the time. But it was clear that this is something he saw as important to the state of Tennessee and not just a higher education initiative, but one that everyone needed to embrace.

He got buy-in early on. He named a special advisor for higher education who served for a year, crossing the state talking with not only educators, but the business community, the non-profit sector, to talk about the need to increase the educational attainment of the state. And that's what this - the Tennessee Promise - is about, and it's part of the overall umbrella of a drive to 55. So in the year 2025, 55 percent of adult Tennesseans will have some kind of post-secondary credential.

HEADLEE: How does it work? Does a student have to maintain a certain GPA? I mean, what kind of requirements does it call for before you get your community college two-year tuition paid?

RHODA: Right. No additional requirements beyond being admitted and remaining in good standing. There are requirements, however - and this is a defining characteristic -that you would agree to have a mentor. Someone who will guide you through the process of applying for financial aid, applying for admission and making sure you, the student, meet all the deadlines. And there is also a very modest community service obligation, but that's it. There's nothing beyond - academically - beyond good standing and being admitted.

HEADLEE: Why do they need financial aid if tuition is free?

RHODA: Well, financial aid goes beyond tuition and fees. There are cost of attendance issues - books, living allowance - for some students. So again, the characteristic of this program - a student is encouraged to and is required to fill out the FAFSFA, which is the application form for all need-based aid, both federal like the Pell grant and then we have a state need-based program, as well as the lottery scholarship.

So the student first receives all that form of - all that financial aid for which he or she may be eligible. And then, where the Tennessee Promise comes in, is the last dollar, if there's still a gap between other forms of financial aid and total tuition and fees.

HEADLEE: Although, to pay for this plan, it actually decreases the amount that students at four-year state colleges get, at least to a certain extent. Why the focus on a two-year college, a community college, instead of giving students a scholarship to a four-year university?

RHODA: Well, excellent question. And I think that says something about a realistic assessment of Tennessee as a state. We have workforce needs now, that projected in the future - they're going to require the kind of skills that are more those that you acquire at a community college or a TCAT. We call them Tennessee College of Applied Technology.

Also, the type of students that we're trying to better serve so we increase the base of better educated Tennesseans, are first-generation and low-income students. And again, community colleges, as well as the TCATs, are types of institutions that really serve the needs of those students.

HEADLEE: And does a student have to go to a certain kind of community college? What if they would rather go to a trade school?

RHODA: Well, in Tennessee, we have community colleges - 13 statewide - and then we have 27 colleges of applied technology statewide. And then this program also applies to students who enroll in associate degrees. There are a couple of public universities that do offer associate degrees and 12 of the private universities.

HEADLEE: I understand that this is going to cost - estimated to cost about 34 million dollars a year. I also understand most of that money - much of it comes from the state lottery. I wonder if you're prepared for educating students, who then move elsewhere to get a job.

RHODA: Well, that would happen. But as far as public policy, I think it's still a public good to have better educated your citizens. Back to the way this is being funded - again, this is a kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - but the lottery scholarship itself had accrued a huge reserve, 300 million dollars plus or minus.

That is now being moved into a trust, which the interest and earnings of which will support this Tennessee promise program. So no new funding was required and the difference between what's required and what the trust generates will be paid for with support from the lottery. But no new state dollars are necessary.

HEADLEE: Not everyone - not every lawmaker, I should say, in Tennessee is on board. State Senator Joey Hensley said quote, I think we're giving away free college to people who are not prepared for college. What's your response to that? I have to imagine that as you're paying for free tuition, some people won't make it through two years. Some people will drop out after a semester or one year.

RHODA: Well, that's true. And that has been the case. There are some things - we've actually been preparing for this for some time. There have been great improvements in the high school curriculum in preparing - better preparing students to be college ready, career ready. On the higher education side through some initiatives four years ago, we've far - are doing a far better job articulating the needs of and identifying transfer pathways, so students will be more ready to - will be better prepared to graduate.

All community colleges and universities in the state have a general education core that's universal. So there are a number of things. Remedial education is another area which ties into the big drive for 55. It's not so much a part of this Tennessee Promise, but we've made some strides that I hope fewer and fewer students will fall through the cracks.

HEADLEE: I mean, I understand the aim to get over half of Tennessee students with some form of college education, but to what end? I mean, I assume that, I mean, if somebody's going to community college, maybe they get an associate's degree. What is the state actually hoping that results in?

RHODA: Right. Well, 55 that's the actual number - the percent of jobs projected in the year 2025 that will require a post-secondary credential. So that's where that number comes from. But beyond that, you know, the criticism or the comment like, well, there's more to being better educated than having a job.

And that's true. But at this particular time, as a state, where we are with our history and our economy, it really does need - there need to be more direct ties to the needs of the workforce.

HEADLEE: Richard Rhoda is executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He joined us from Nashville. Richard, thank you so much and good luck.

RHODA: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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