White House lauds TN’s free community college plan


Gov. Bill Haslam (Photo: State of Tennessee)

Mary Troyan, The Tennessean

Tennessee’s decision to eliminate tuition at state two-year colleges was lauded Thursday by officials at the White House, where Gov. Bill Haslam promoted Tennessee Promise as an innovative way to make college more accessible.

Haslam was one of several Tennesseans in Washington for President Barack Obama’s second College Opportunity Summit. The event showcased hundreds of educational institutions around the country that have set new goals to increase college participation and graduation rates.

Tennessee Promise, which covers tuition at two-year colleges not already covered by other scholarship or aid programs, was the first program recognized at Thursday’s summit when Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, asked Haslam about it.

“If you graduate from high school, you get two years of community or technical school free, because free gets people’s attention,” Haslam said.

This year’s high school seniors are the first eligible under the new policy. Of the 65,000 seniors statewide, 56,000 have applied, Haslam said. Some will choose four-year colleges or military service, or will join the workforce, but Haslam said the figure proves more students expect to attend a higher education institution.

“We feel pretty good, just out of the gate, having almost 90 percent of our high school seniors apply,” Haslam said. “Interestingly, I think 85 percent say, ‘I aspire to go to school beyond high school now.’ Our challenge is to make certain they are actually ready.”

Obama addressed the affordability issue in a speech to the summit Thursday, held near the White House at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

“When it comes to the cost of college, there’s a frustration in a middle class that feels like folks at the top can afford it, folks at the bottom get help, (but) there’s nobody who’s looking out for folks in the middle,” Obama said. “And given accelerating costs and the recognition that this is going to be the key ticket to the middle class, that elicits great frustration.”

Tennessee Promise also provides mentors for high school seniors to help them navigate the college application process and the transition to college life. During a local pilot of the program, Haslam said, more first-generation college students earned a degree than those not participating.

“Free tuition is a big deal, but I think an even bigger deal is the mentor system,” Haslam said. “It’s incredibly helpful.”

In an interview after the summit, Haslam said the White House event was not a victory lap for Tennessee Promise because too many community college students drop out before graduation, and some are ill-prepared when they get there.

“We’ve taken the first step and removed one obstacle for people who might say they can’t go to college because they can’t afford it, but a lot of other hurdles remain,” Haslam said.

Undocumented immigrant students aren’t eligible for Tennessee Promise because they don’t qualify for federal financial aid. While the immigration issue didn’t come up during Haslam’s appearance at the summit, the House held a symbolic vote Thursday approving legislation to block Obama’s executive action shielding millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

White House officials also announced that Obama will visit Nashville on Tuesday to discuss immigration.

Haslam said he expects the Tennessee General Assembly to consider alternatives to help undocumented students afford college, such as offering them in-state tuition rates.

“I think we should be talking about that,” Haslam said. “These are students who grew up here and have gone to school in our public school systems and are planning on staying. Are we setting up the means for them to be productive members of our state?”

There are about 8,000 undocumented immigrant children between 13 and 17 years old in Tennessee. About 6,000 are enrolled in public school, according to an estimate from the Migration Policy Center.

Also attending the summit was Lipscomb University President L. Randolph Lowry. Lipscomb has committed to creating a master’s-level school counseling program with a special focus on college counseling, training 200 school counselors and college access practitioners through a College Access Project course, and partnering with K-12 school districts to assess the effectiveness of the course.

“The guidance counselor in the high school can impact a student’s direction — and life — in an extraordinary way,” Lowry said.

The Metro Nashville Public Schools also participated in the summit by pledging to increase the number of students who complete the federal financial aid application, increase post-secondary institution enrollment, increase college and career planning, and improve the quality of school counseling.

Officials from the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee College Access and Success Network also attended.

Reach Mary Troyan at mtroyan@usatoday.com.

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