Published on 2014/02/14

Tennessee’s Proposed Education Promise: Community College, Free at Last

Tennessee’s Proposed Education Promise: Community College, Free at Last
Tennessee’s Education Promise is a step in the right direction, but its effectiveness is diminished by not specifically supporting the state’s adults.
Tennessee’s Governor William Haslam announced last week a plan to provide two years of community college education and/or training for free to any high school senior in his state on track to earn a high school diploma. Imagine: community college for free.

This is a governor who understands the economic pressures of today, as well as the work force imperatives bearing down on his state into the future.  It’s an exciting move that exponentially increases higher education access for young Tennesseans, but it leaves adults out in the cold.

Here are a few of the reasons why this is a bold strategy for Tennessee:

1. The California Experience

California has been desperately trying to untangle its higher education promises from reality for the past two decades.

California’s education leaders tried incentivizing high school graduates to do their best for automatic slots at California state universities. However, the program backfired into deficits, waiting lists and defaults into an already over-burdened community college structure. Tennessee will be able to learn from these mistakes California experienced.

2. Widening Access

Equally important to making community college education and training open to recent high school grads is the opportunity to make it open to reach more economically-disadvantaged and first-generation students.

3. History of Innovation

Governor Haslam, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system have a successful track record of implementing new policies from performance-based funding, improving credit transfer pathways and agreeing to a statewide prior learning assessment approach (placing value on college-level learning acquired outside of academia).

The details of the Education Promise will need to be worked out, but respectfully, let’s hope the promise includes:

  • Access to blended and online courses, complementing daytime offerings and access for rural citizens;
  • More evening and weekend courses for adult students with busy schedules;
  • Extensive and thoughtful learning outcomes and competencies that make developing learning plans (for credentials or degrees) more meaningful and valuable for learners;
  • An assessment approach that assures academic integrity;
  • Career maps;
  • A mechanism to enable working adults to complete 60 credits, or a two-year degree, over time (for example, allowing for part-time attendance).

The Only Downside

The Education Promise does not meet the needs of an equally important Tennessee constituency: working adults. Imagine all of the former Tennessee students (at both two- and four-year schools) who were unable to complete their degrees. The Lumina Foundation found that 22 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 fall into this category.[1] This “promise” may make it possible for them to return and complete certificates and degrees.

Now, imagine all of the Tennessee adults who were unable to afford to attend, or weren’t ready to attend directly after high school, who may now choose to go to college — thereby netting a positive impact for their employers, families and communities. The Lumina Foundation found that this description encapsulates a third of Tennessee’s adults.[2]

Wouldn’t it be great if “free at last” applied to all of Tennessee’s citizens who are looking for family-supporting jobs and career opportunities? Perhaps, as the Education Promise is refined, money could be found to help adults too.


Ultimately, this program is a great step in the right direction and could mark the beginning of great changes in postsecondary access and attainment. Thank you, Governor Haslam, for your bold and visionary leadership. Your message of free postsecondary education moves the idea from a dream to a possibility.

– – – –


[1] The Lumina Foundation, “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education: Tennessee,” 2012. Accessed at

[2] Ibid

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Readers Comments

Mary 2014/02/14 at 8:23 am

I’ve been following the developments in Tennessee with keen interest. This is a great opportunity for the state, and it’s promising that a politician is wiling to step out and at least symbolically acknowledge the economic and social benefits of having a well-educated adult working population.

Judy B 2014/02/14 at 11:24 am

I agree with Mary, with an emphasis on “symbolically.” So far, we haven’t heard any specifics in terms of implementation or a resource allocation to make it happen. My hope is that, as they move forward, they will consult with the economically disadvantaged and other populations being targeted to ensure the end result will actually improve their access to college education.

For example, I read of one community college that launched a pilot to test an innovative way of widening access. They realized many of their target students (economically-disadvantaged adults) worked in precarious jobs with very fluid schedules. It was hard for many to enrol in courses because they either did shift work (some, overnight) or had to be “on call” a lot of the time and could not attend class. To accommodate these students, the college started putting materials for one of their general education courses online so these working students could access them at all hours. In addition, the college opened a 24-hour hotline where students could call in while working through the materials and speak to an instructor or volunteer peer tutor. Anecdotally, there were calls received between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. — enough that there is talk of extending the pilot to another course.

Peter Laramie 2014/02/14 at 1:04 pm

Congratulations, Tennessee! It will be important in the coming months for the Governor to get the local businesses on his side. In order for a program of this scope to succeed, there will need to be buy-in from all key stakeholders in the community, and businesses — which will benefit from having well-educated job candidates — form a large part of that.

Ran Howard 2014/02/19 at 5:10 am

How Tennessee could create such a program without including the state’s adults just blows me away.

Perhaps it’s a worry around expense, but they’re only solidifying the belief that adult students are second-class citizens in this industry.

Very disappointing as a final product, but a small step in the right direction.

Chari Leader Kelley 2014/02/21 at 11:00 am

Thank you so much for these thoughtful comments. I agree with you all. There is so much work to be done and details to figure out.

Like Judy, I’ve seen examples of well-intended efforts fall short because of our basic assumptions about economically disadvantaged students. When you’re electricity is turned off, or your child/parent is sick, or work hours are always subject to changes; it is easy to understand how attending a college course cannot be the number one priority for a student with a full plate and little support (from family, work, or more pressing needs).

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