A Blueprint for Free Community College

Every governor and community college president in the country is paying close attention to Tennessee's successful free community college program. The hope is that if this can be accomplished in Tennessee, there is no reason why it can't happen nationwide.

Republican Governor Bill Haslam instituted Tennessee Promise in February 2014, making the state the first in the nation to provide free community college. The Obama Administration saw Tennessee Promise as a model that could work across the country and advocated free community college for all in January of 2015.

Governor Haslam realized how important a community college education is after traveling the state on a listening tour and asking business and industry leaders what they needed to build their workforce. What he learned was that vacancies in many industries were not being filled due to a lack of qualified workers, particularly in IT and information systems. These jobs required a post-secondary education and qualifications that the state's 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology could readily provide.

As the former CEO of a manufacturing company, I know first-hand that companies in Indiana are facing the same shortage of workers. Ivy Tech now works with hundreds of Indiana businesses to train their future workforce. Many of our students already attend Ivy Tech for free because they are enrolled in an apprenticeship program where their employer pays their tuition and they earn while they learn.

The board of College Promise, the White House's task force, formed to move the idea of free community college forward, recently met in Tennessee to learn more about the successful practices instituted by that state.

As a board member of College Promise, I am impressed by Tennessee's initiatives. The state starts preparing students for community college while they are in high school by working with guidance counselors and letting every student know that community college is free.

At the present time, Tennessee Promise is only for students graduating high school. The state simply does not have the resources to enroll non-traditional students. High school students, who graduated in 2015, marked the first class to have free community college.

This number of students enrolled at Tennessee's community colleges has risen dramatically. There are now 16,291 students enrolled, representing a 24.7 percent increase at community colleges and 20 percent at colleges of applied technology - formerly known as technical schools.

Tennessee has initiated a Summer Bridge Program that helps high school students, who have enrolled in community college, become more college-ready, both academically and socially.

All of these students are assigned to a volunteer mentor - often a business person from their community who can guide them through the community college admission process. There are 9,301 mentors in Tennessee.

The state is removing any financial obstacles, particularly for students who would be the first in the family to attend college and have no guidance on how to get financial aid, or students from low-income families.

In 2015, Tennessee became the highest rated state in the country for the percentage of high school seniors who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is vitally important. Many low-income students already receive enough aid so that their community college tuition is free. But they have no way of knowing this unless they fill out FAFSA.

In addition, Tennessee has instituted the "last-dollar" scholarship. This works by factoring in what a student's financial aid package would be after receiving a Pell Grant and a Tennessee Hope scholarship, which is based on merit. The state fills in the last-dollar gap, which averages around $970 per student.

An interesting component of Tennessee Promise is the requirement that every student do eight hours of community service. The architects of the plan believed that this would establish a powerful connection between the student and where he studies that would be mutually beneficial.

Students are required to begin their postsecondary education in the Fall, directly following high school graduation and remain at an eligible institution for four consecutive semesters. They must enroll fulltime each semester and maintain satisfactory academic progress, which at most institutions is the equivalent of earning a 2.0 GPA each semester.

My College Promise colleagues were most interested in how Tennessee expects to pay for free community college. The funding comes from $110 million from the state's lottery reserves along with a $47 million endowment, created by the state General Assembly. I think it is imperative that states take on this initiative with their own resources, as it could take years for the federal government, despite President Obama's good intentions, to fund free community college.

Tennessee has shown that free community college is possible. It is now up to community college presidents to find ways to work with their own state governments to make community college free in their own communities to local high school students. I believe that this will be a true game-changer in higher education.