By Dustin Weeden and Suzanne Hultin

Tuition prices have increased 58 percent at public community colleges and 72 percent at public four-year institutions in the last decade.

Following these rapid increases, many states are exploring innovative solutions that provide affordable postsecondary opportunities to all residents while maintaining a balanced budget.

Tennessee created a new Promise Scholarship (HB 2491) that will enable qualifying residents to attend community colleges without paying tuition out of their own pockets. Tennessee is the first state to implement such a broad statewide policy designed to provide free access to college since California’s community colleges began charging tuition in the early 1980s. Tennessee is not the only state latching on to this idea though. Oregon passed legislation to study the concept and Mississippi considered a similar proposal but ultimately decided to take more time to study the potential consequences.

To make providing free college financially feasible to the state, the Tennessee Promise Scholarship is a “last dollar” grant and limited to new high school graduates. As a last dollar grant, students must utilize all other sources of financial aid including all federal grants (such as Pell Grants) and any scholarships provided by colleges before receiving a Promise Scholarship.

If all of the other sources of aid combined do not cover the price of tuition, then students will receive a Promise Scholarship for the amount of tuition that is unmet. Students enrolling at community colleges are guaranteed that the Promise Scholarship will cover the price of tuition while students who enroll at four-year institutions will receive a maximum scholarship equal to the average tuition at state community colleges.

Tennessee controlled the costs to the state by limiting the availability of Promise Scholarships to new high school graduates. High school seniors will complete scholarship applications next fall with the first awards expected to be allocated in the fall of 2015. The scholarship program will be funded through a newly created endowment and lottery reserves.

While Promise Scholarships will help students avoid paying tuition and fees, the program also expects recipients to meet certain requirements, including working with an assigned mentor, attending a college orientation session, enrolling full time, maintaining continuous enrollment each semester, making satisfactory academic progress and completing at least eight hours of community service each semester.

As other states consider college affordability solutions, the Tennessee Promise Scholarship may prove to be a model that is tweaked and replicated. As states craft their own unique affordability policies, some of the strategies may include going beyond traditional-aged college students to also target the growing population of adult learners.

Dustin Weeden is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program and Suzanne Hultin is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Education Program.

Email Dustin

 Email Suzanne.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.


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