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Tennessee Promise to make state's community colleges free

Tennessee governor Bill Haslam on May 2, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The governor of Tennessee wants to make community college or technical school free for all high school graduates in the state. Republican Governor Bill Haslam calls his proposal the Tennessee Promise. It's part of a broader workforce development strategy in a state that lags behind in higher education, but wants a technically savvy labor pool.

If the Promise succeeds, Tennessee will be the only state to offer associate's degrees and technical certificates free. David Baime with the American Association of Community Colleges says many students are right on the brink, financially.

"So when a message is sent out loudly and clearly that for qualified students community college is free," says Baime, "We think that it could make a big difference in terms of people's willingness to enroll in our institutions."

The governor says he'll pay for the Tennessee Promise with lottery revenue. The proposal builds on a growing number of smaller place based scholarship programs. Michelle Miller-Adams studies the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan and says the lure of college scholarships for Kalamazoo students prompted many families to move there.

"The Kalamazoo public school district has grown by 25 percent over the last seven years since the Promise was announced," Miller-Adams says.

She says that's a local economic bump that wouldn't be felt in a statewide program. But the focus on community colleges could do a lot to develop the local workforce.

About the author

Kate Davidson is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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