Tennessee Promise

Tennessee Promise, the state's free community college initiative, appears to be off to a great start.

Statewide, community college enrollment is up 14 percent. Students had to fill out the financial application for student aid, meet with a volunteer mentor and sign up for eight hours of community service in order to qualify. More than 22,000 students met the August deadline for eligibility.

Tennessee wanted to make it as easy as possible to apply. To keep receiving Tennessee Promise dollars, students must maintain at least a C average, be enrolled full-time and continue doing community service

In an interview, Governor Bill Haslam said: "There really is an income gap that has been created in this country. And I think at the heart of that is a difference in educational opportunities."

One component of the program that I applaud is arranging for each freshman to have a volunteer mentor. I have found, through my own experience at Ivy Tech in Indiana, that students who have someone they can turn to for support and guidance fare much better in an academic setting. Many community college students are the first in their family to enroll in college. They need encouragement and a clear path to success.

But to be truly free community colleges need to look at ways to pay for other, non-tuition costs such as fees, books, and living expenses. In some instances these other costs can constitute more than half - and often as much as three-fourths - of the total cost of attending college. I believe that these costs factor into the reason why community college students take longer to graduate and, in some cases, abandon their quest for a degree.

What Tennessee Promise demonstrates is that a state can take on this initiative without support from the federal government. The program is supported by a state lottery.

This is important nationally, as it doesn't appear that the Republican-controlled Congress is going to pass any bill initiated by President Obama to make community college free. So each state needs to look closely at its community colleges and see what can be accomplished without federal aid.

Community college presidents around the country will be closely following what happens in Tennessee. President Obama said: "Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it, because, in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that's reserved for a few."

I believe every state should get behind this effort. We need to provide an affordable opportunity for higher education to our young people, displaced workers, veterans and anyone looking to improve their economic future.