The NCSL Blog


By Dustin Weeden and Suzanne Hultin

President Obama has unveiled a proposal for making two years of community college free.

Although more details from the administration are forthcoming—the president mentioned the proposal in Tuesday's State of the Union address—the proposal, “America’s College Promise,” would increase federal funding to cover three-quarters of the average community college tuition, and states would be required to cover the rest.

Congressional action will be needed to implement the program, and initial responses to the plan from Congressional Republicans were not favorable. If all 50 states participate, the proposal could benefit 9 million students each year and save them an average of $3,800 in tuition, according to the Administration.

President Obama’s proposal for a federal-state partnership to provide tuition-free access to community college students builds on efforts underway and being discussed in several states.

The first such program is House Bill 2491 creating the Tennessee Promise program—a scholarship and mentoring program that is designed to improve college access and success of recent high school graduates.

As a scholarship program, Tennessee Promise will ensure all recent high school graduates have the opportunity to attend state community colleges without paying tuition or fees. Tennessee Promise Scholarships are last dollar grants meaning students must first utilize all other sources of financial aid including all federal Pell Grant aid, Tennessee HOPE scholarships, and any other grant aid received through the Tennessee Student Assistant Award program.

If all of the other sources of financial aid combined do not cover the price of tuition, then students will receive a Promise Scholarship for the amount of tuition that is unmet. Approximately 56,000 students (roughly 90 percent of high school seniors) completed scholarship applications in the fall of 2014.

The mentoring aspect of the Promise program is just as important as the financial component.  Each Promise applicant is assigned a mentor who will help students navigate the college-selection process.

Research shows that at-risk students who work with a mentor are significantly more likely to hold college-going aspirations and ultimately enroll in degree seeking programs. More than 9,000 mentors have volunteered and will begin meeting with Tennessee Promise applicants in January, 2015.

To fund the Promise Scholarship program, Tennessee created an endowment fund with most of the original support coming from $300 million of lottery reserve funds and $47 million in one-time state general fund dollars.

State legislatures have been discussing how to make community college more affordable for the last few years.  Several other states have discussed providing free tuition for community colleges and Oregon is studying a model. 

NCSL expects to see great interest and activity in this area in 2015.  In addition, nearly every state offers and supports programs for students to gain college credits or industry certified credentials nearly free of charge and without enrolling in a community or four-year college. These programs can significantly reduce the cost of earning a credential while also encouraging completion.

The most common of these programs is dual or concurrent enrollment credits, which are programs that offer college-level courses to high school students so that they can meet high school graduation requirements while earning college credits.

Although dual enrollment offerings vary widely by state, research has shown that program participants are more likely to persist in postsecondary education and accumulate more college credits than comparison students. Some programs even offer enough courses to allow students to earn an associate’s degree upon high school completion.

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.

Posted in: Public Policy
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About the NCSL Blog

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.