New free tuition plan spurs another shift for Tennessee colleges

Three years after he transformed the state’s college landscape with Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam is poised to change the game again.

During his annual State of the State address Monday night, Haslam sent shock waves through the academic community by announcing his plan to open community colleges to millions of adult students tuition-free. It’s a simple idea with an incredibly ambitious goal and far-reaching implications.

College leaders are still digging into the details — most of them heard about it on Monday, around the same time as everyone else. But in a series of interviews, leading education experts agreed it could re-frame campus life in a way similar to Tennessee Promise, which has sent more than 33,000 recent high school graduates to community college tuition-free since 2015.

“It’s an immense opportunity for us,” said Flora Tydings, who oversees the state’s 13 community colleges as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, a job she started Wednesday. “I could not have asked for a better announcement in my first week coming into the job.”

Tydings said that, as the Reconnect scholarship works its way through the legislature this year, community college leaders will begin expanding services for adult students. More night or weekend classes are on the table, she said, as are “wrap-around services” that might connect adults with child care options.

Although the Reconnect scholarship represents a seismic shift for the state’s efforts to expand college access, it has the same philosophical DNA as Tennessee Promise. And it is the latest in a long line of attempts to tackle a problem nearly everyone agrees needs fixing: There are not enough working adults in Tennessee with a college degree.

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