What Does Tennessee’s Free Community College Plan Say About the Future of Higher Education?

full_37353On Monday, February 3rd, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam outlined a plan to provide free community college courses for High School students that weren’t able to get into a four-year school. The Republican governor’s plan is to fund tuition from the state lottery for qualifying students. In the week since the announcement was made, both critics and champions of the proposal have come forward to voice their opinions. While many see the proposal as a positive step forward in bringing education to the people, some criticize the idea as being impractical and limiting the quality of the education received. What the proposal shows, however, is the emphasis on education being a pathway to improvement. Tennessee is statistically one of the least educated states in the country, according to NPR. Haslam’s remark “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future? Priceless,” expresses how he sees educating the young people of the state as a necessity of building his state’s future. What, though, does this free community college plan say about the future of higher education?

More and more, a college education is becoming a necessity for gainful employment. This has been true for decades, but it has been felt more acutely since the rise in college enrollment during the recession. Without immediate job prospects, many went back to school to obtain the skills and knowledge for employment. Once upon a time, a U.S. citizen could go through an entirely government-funded school system, graduate with a H.S. diploma and begin their way in the workforce. Today, graduating high school students (that didn’t earn a scholarship) need to make an initial investment of tens, or in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get a degree that may help in getting a job. For some, the risk of all that debt is just too much and they never pursue college as an option.

This creates an “education gap” if you will. Those same H.S. graduates are now left to fend for what few jobs are available to them. The failure here is the failure of the government to provide adequate education for tomorrow’s workforce. American society long ago accepted the premise that the government should provide public education. An educated populace is critical to democracy and to producing a workforce that can sustain and grow the economy. Where once the majority of the workforce could get by with a H.S. diploma and college education was reserved for an intellectual and/or economic elite, today the majority of Americans seek higher education.

This is why fully funding two-year schools is a great starting point. The two-degree (especially from technical and vocational schools) will provide many with job skills right away. For others, it will open the door to four-year degrees with the cost of the tuition being softened by not having to pay for the first two-years. What Governor Haslam has shown is a recognition that the government needs to catch up with the times and expand what is considered as public education.

While the nation is still a long way from the government fully funding public higher education, this proposal in Tennessee demonstrates for some the turning tide in higher ed. At a time when the cost of tuition, student loan debt and tying the investment of higher education back to income after graduation dominate the public discourse on higher ed, this simple proposal offers a real solution to many of those problems. According to Washington Monthly, there was a time when all community colleges were publicly funded. A return to this would definitely put the “community” back in community college. While this is not the first proposal of its kind and there are community colleges in the country that offer free tuition, the national press and public discourse on this proposal marks a potential turning point for the future of higher education.

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