By Chris Kenning
(Reuters) – Tennessee will become the first state in the country to offer free community college to all adults without a degree under a measure Republican Governor Bill Haslam is likely to quickly sign into law, a spokesman said Friday.
The legislation will expand on a previous law passed in 2014, when Tennessee began offering recent high-school graduates two years of tuition-free community or technical college.
“If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs and there is no smarter investment than increasing access to high-quality education,” Haslam, who championed the measure, said in a statement celebrating its passage on Tuesday.
The idea of tuition-free college has gained traction across the United States in recent years. Oregon and Minnesota have free community college programs for recent graduates.
In February, San Francisco said it would do the same. New York lawmakers in April approved making tuition free at state schools for families making less than $125,000 by 2019.
President Barack Obama in 2015 proposed a $60 billion plan based on Tennessee’s 2014 law. Some critics argued government resources would be better spent on only the neediest students.
Tennessee’s new program will pay leftover tuition costs after accounting for federal and state grants, and scholarships. Tuition averages about $4,000 a year at the state’s 13 community colleges.
The state’s share of the estimated $11.2 million annual cost will be funded by lottery proceeds, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Tennessee officials say the 2014 “Tennessee Promise” program has helped 33,081 students enroll at community colleges, fuelling a 30 percent increase in full time students. About 63 percent re-enrolled the following year, according to state figures.
The expanded “Tennessee Reconnect” measure is meant to help meet a state goal of raising the percentage of residents with postsecondary degrees to 55 percent by 2025 from 39 percent last year.
Studies show that people with degrees earn higher incomes over time and are less likely to face unemployment.
To participate in Tennessee’s expanded adult program, students must have been a state resident for at least a year, not already have a degree, maintain a 2.0 GPA, enroll in enough classes to be a part-time student and complete a federal student aid application.
An estimated 20,000 are expected to enroll in the first year, said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
(Reporting by Chris Kenning, editing by G Crosse)