A higher bar for higher ed.
Lost amid the furor over President Obama’s free-community college proposal this year—whether it was a new GI Bill, an empty promise or an expensive waste—lay a simple fact that Obama highlighted in his announcement at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee: “America’s College Promise” was modeled on “Tennessee Promise,” signed into law in 2014 by Republican Governor Bill Haslam. In fact, Tennessee was the first state in decades to offer free higher education.
Haslam—who, according to Forbes, became America’s wealthiest politician this year, thanks to a family oil and gas fortune—doesn’t seem to mind the lack of spotlight. Since taking office in 2011, he has eschewed the culture wars in favor of a practical approach to unsexy issues like civil service reform and teacher tenure. It was in 2013 that Haslam first sought to make his mark on higher ed, with an initiative to increase the proportion of Tennesseans who have a certificate or degree beyond high school from 32 to 55 percent. As part of the campaign, he found a way to make universal community college affordable (and earned the backing of the GOP-controlled state legislature) by tapping the state lottery fund. “Net cost to the state: zero. Net impact on our future: priceless,” as the governor’s tagline went.
Thanks to Haslam, the first class of Tennessee Promise students will start college this fall, with 18,000 of them expected to enroll. But the nation is already watching. In July, Oregon’s legislature passed a free community college bill. The same month, lawmakers in Congress introduced legislation, to the tune of $90 billion, to enact Obama’s proposal. And in August, free community college was part of a plan put forward by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.