Any graduating high school senior could attend a two-year community college for free under a new proposal laid out by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R), a massive expansion in higher education that would increase the percentage of residents with advanced certificates or degrees.
In his state of the state address Monday, Haslam proposed setting aside $300 million from Tennessee’s lottery fund to pay for the expansion through an endowment.
“We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee,” Haslam said Monday, according to the Tennessean newspaper. “Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors.”
The proposal is part of what Haslam has dubbed the “Drive to 55,” an effort to make sure 55 percent of Tennessee residents have an advanced credential. Tennessee is one of dozens of states pushing to increase the number of community or four-year college graduates as the economy evolves. Without the advanced degrees, Tennessee could fall far short of projected high-skill workers in fields ranging from accounting to public management and legal services.
Just 32 percent of Tennessee adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have advanced degrees. That puts the state six points below the national average, behind all but seven other states.
Haslam’s office has pushed proposals to stamp out the need for remedial math education for high school students, and on Monday he unveiled a budget that would spend tens of millions on new facilities at community colleges across the state. Haslam also proposed spending $63 million on higher teacher salaries.
Haslam also proposed providing $300,000 for a new system that would help state colleges to identify and recruit adults likely to return to college and complete their degree. About 1 million Tennessee residents have earned some college credit without achieving a degree, Haslam’s office said.
Community colleges throughout the country have nearly 3 million full-time attendees and 4 million part-time students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The vast majority — 61 percent — are female. In Tennessee, community colleges have almost 80,000 enrollees; minorities make up a much higher percentage of community college student bodies than they do in four-year institutions.