The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Can This Be True? Free College for Everyone

on June 18, 2016

I really didn’t expect to find much about schools at this time of year when students, teachers, and administrators are finally taking a breath of fresh air and thinking only of peace and quiet for a while.  But, then an article in our local newspaper, The Oregonian, told about the success of a free community college opportunity program in Tennessee, and I wanted to cheer. It certainly looks like that program is already successful and that the one in Oregon, just beginning, will also be a success.  

A state run program called The “Tennessee Promise” has just completed its first year of operation  with 16,291 students enrolled in tuition-free community colleges or technical schools.  Much of the money for such schooling has been available in federal scholarships for several years, but most students and their families did not know about it, and the government applications were very difficult to fill out. In this system all students are informed about the program early in their high school careers and given instructions and assistance in filling out the application form.  Students  who receive a federal scholarship then get additional funding from local sources and the state itself.  Although the price of comunity college in Tennessee is $4000, students and their families pay nothing.

In the coming school year all of the 2,291 students at Nashville’s largest high school will apply for the program.  According to a student counselor at that school, the Promise program is”just part of the culture now.”

Having passed a law creating a similar program, the “Oregon Promise,” a second state will begin its program this fall.  Already 8,500 students have applied to state community colleges there.  In many ways the Oregon program echoes that of Tennessee, but there are a few differences.

Both programs keep state costs down by being the last contributor.  Only after federal Pell Grants and other  financial aid sources have been used does the state contribute.  However, Tenessee has backed its program with $360 million from lottery revenues, while the Oregon legislature has approved only $10 million for this year with no promise of future funding.

Oregon also requires a higher grade-point average for students to enroll and remain in the program than Tennesee, and its students may attend school only half-time, while Tennesee requires full time attendence. In addition, Oregon’s students get $1000 from the state whether or not they receive a federal grant. Finally, undocumented Oregon residents also qualify for the state grants.

What excites me, first of all, is that ten other states are interested in the program and closely following the progress in Tennessee and Oregon. In addition, President Obama has  proposed a national program based on Tennessee’s structure.  But beyond those possibilities I see opportunities  for a positive change in the behaviors and attitudes of high school students.  Knowing that the “Promise” is there for them if they work hard and get decent grades in high school may motivate many young people who had no hope of college or technical school before.  I expect to see a big uptick in attendance, enthusiasm, and effort in high schools in the two states already committed to the “Promise” and the same in other states that later join them.








One response to “Can This Be True? Free College for Everyone

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Tennessee is fortunate to have a courageous political leader in Gov Haslam. Oregon state senator Mark Haas, who has spearheaded a similar free community college movement in Oregon, may not have the same political chops and is working in a state where any reform is fiercely resisted by one of the nation’s most influential public employees unions, the OEA.
    Free community college should be available to all American high school juniors and seniors who are demonstrating progress on an academic track. Our challenge in Oregon is in finding responsible, ethical bureaucrats to oversee such an expansive social program.


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