Tuition-free community college to become the norm in Tennessee as bill heads to Haslam

Tennessee will become the first state in the nation to offer tuition-free community college to nearly every resident without a degree.

State lawmakers on Wednesday gave final approval for Gov. Bill Haslam’s landmark plan, which would allow any adult resident of Tennessee without a college degree to get one at a community college without paying tuition. It now goes to his office, where he will sign it into law.

Tennessee already allows new high school graduates the chance to attend community college tuition-free through the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. Extending the model to include adults over 24 was one of Haslam’s top legislative priorities this year.

Haslam introduced his plan, called Tennessee Reconnect, during his State of the Stateaddress in January. It has enjoyed nearly universal support from Republicans and Democrats.

Haslam, a Republican, has become a national leader in the fight for tuition-free college. He pushed the statewide Tennessee Promise plan, which was a first of its kind in the nation.

Since that program passed in 2014, Democrats have taken up the call for free college tuition — both in the 2016 presidential election and in Democratic controlled states like New York.

In a statement celebrating the passage of Tennessee Reconnect, Haslam repeated a familiar argument that has made the model palatable to conservatives here. Helping Tennesseans boost their education, he said, boosts their earning potential and the state’s ability to attract big businesses.

“In Tennessee, we’ve determined that the best jobs plan is an education plan. If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs,” Haslam said in the statement. “There is no smarter investment than increasing access to high quality education.”

The state’s network of 13 community colleges, has already started working to accommodate the swell of adult students expected when the new program launches in 2018. Administrators have said they are considering adding nighttime course offerings, among other accommodations for an adult’s busy schedule.

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and or on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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