Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill into law this morning that would offer free community college to adults who qualify as “independent” and who are over the age of 25 who have not yet obtained an Associate’s degree.
The Tennessee Reconnect Program will offer incentives for “older adults” to either finish or begin their higher education journey by creating a last-dollar scholarship of funds taken from the state’s lottery for education funds, which covers the difference between scholarships and grants and the remaining tuition cost. Eligible adults must be admitted to a participating college, as well as participate in an advising program approved by the Higher Education Commission. The law is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative, which hopes to increase the number of Tennesseans who hold post-secondary degrees to 55% by 2025.
This follows the 2014 implementation of a program called Tennessee Promise, which provides last-dollar scholarships for high school seniors who attend one of the state’s community colleges or technical schools. Like in the Reconnect program, the funding comes in to cover the difference between cost and the amount of scholarships and grants the student receives. Since the program’s start in 2014, the state has seen a 32% increase in freshman enrollment in technical colleges and a 30% increase in community colleges. The retention rate for the two is 83% and 63% respectively.
The Reconnect Program is being cited as a chance for adults to take advantage of the possibility of an education that could enhance their job prospects and provide more opportunities for them and their families. And with the intense debate over whether free community college should be funded by tax dollars, Tennessee has found a unique solution that doesn’t use those tax dollars but still eliminates some of the cost burden for higher education. Financial aid and scholarships can cover a large portion of costs, and using lottery funds to cover the difference for qualifying students, now of almost all ages, is a cost-effective way for the state to ease the burden without using tax dollars to do so.