A small swarm of teenagers and parents is lining up in front of Sydny Simpson, who’s with the Volunteer State Community College office of admissions in Gallatin, Tennessee.
“Here is a refrigerator magnet for you,” she says, “and if you want to join that tour group right there, we’ll get going in just a second.”
The high school seniors are here because Tennessee is about to become the first state in the nation to pay for every student to go to community college for free. After the campus tour, they grab seats in the library’s computer lab. Staff members guide them through the application for the funding program, called Tennessee Promise.
“Why not?” says Erin Drexler, a home-schooled high school senior. “It’s free, you know? And college is not cheap.”
“I mean, who doesn’t like free?” says Helen Byrd, a parent sitting nearby.
They’re not only ones who feel this way: Nearly every high school senior in the state has applied. Many of those students won’t actually attend community college next fall — some will decide to go to a four-year school instead, or not go to college at all.
But Mike Krause, the program’s executive director, says the signup number still mean a lot.
“I’ve been in Tennessee government for eight years, and in higher education specifically,” he says. “I have never seen this level of conversation around going to college.”
Here’s how Tennessee Promise works: Students have to first apply for federal financial aid, and the state pays whatever tuition is left over.
The kicker: Tennessee is expecting that about half of these kids will get their tuition covered by federal grants, not by the state at all. That means they could have gone to college for free even without Tennessee Promise. But a lot of them just didn’t realize those grants were available.
“They say, ‘I can’t afford college,’ and they shrug,” Krause says. “So far, I think the most powerful effect [of Tennessee Promise] has been to change that conversation.”
In other words, the program is an experiment in college marketing as much as funding. And other cities and states are watching to see how successful the program will be.
Back at Volunteer State, high school senior Madison Cone is signing the final paperwork for her Tennessee Promise application.
“I’m all about saving money,” she says.
Cone’s mother had to take out student loans to get through college. For the two of them, free is a message they really want to hear.