Tennessee Promise: A Brief History

Posted by Wyatt Larkin on February 05, 2015 at 6:07 AM

As student debt continues to climb while higher education becomes increasingly vital, yet less accessible for working families, states and localities are beginning to look for new ways to prioritize college affordability. Over the past decade, several communities have established postsecondary opportunity programs—frequently referred to as “promise programs”—that offer a combination of college funding and support services to their residents.

Given the popularity of most promise programs, the once seemingly outlandish idea of tuition-free college is gaining broad bipartisan support within several state and local governments. When the state of Tennessee made national headlines as their state legislature by passing the Tennessee Promise by an overwhelming margin, they became the first state in the country to offer tuition-free community college to all of its high school graduates. The origin of the Tennessee Promise as a locally administered scholarship fund may serve as a useful blueprint for how other states can develop a universal tuition-free higher education scholarship.

When Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Promise into law last June, he leveraged the support of a five year-old local scholarship program to build his statewide policy. In his previous job as Mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, Haslam and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale developed Knox Achieves, a postsecondary opportunity program with targeted eligibility that would later be expanded statewide and serve as a framework for the Tennessee Promise. In an interview with Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed, Haslam said that he was initially skeptical when presented with the framework for Knox Achieves. But, as Haslam recalled, outcomes and accountability are core tenets of the Republican Party, and fervent support from local business leaders helped cement the mayor’s approval.

Despite the success of the Tennessee Promise in a highly conservative state, it is unlikely that a similar model could be easily replicated in other states where local promise programs do not yet exist. According to Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Tennessee’s $300 million lottery-funded scholarship program is unique and not universally replicable. In states where tax increases are a political non-starter, it will be difficult to create a similar universal scholarship simply by reallocating existing resources. Therefore, it would behoove higher education advocates to work with city and county officials to establish local promise programs. This approach will help make more students afford college while cultivating the political will to create more universal statewide promise programs.

There are now nearly two dozen localities that offer promise programs, with the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan being among the most generous. The privately-funded Kalamazoo Promise covers the full costs of tuition and fees at any one of Michigan’s 44 public colleges and universities for high school graduates from the Kalamazoo Public School district. Much in the way that Knox Achieves preluded the Tennessee Promise, the success of the Kalamazoo Promise was pivotal for the development of Michigan's Promise zones, which currently offers scholarships in eight communities across the state.

Many promise programs were promoted not only as college scholarship programs but also as broader economic development initiatives, as officials have seen programs as a way to attract new residents, increase local property values, and instill a “college going culture” within their communities. By tapping into these shared educational and economic messages, advocates for affordable higher education can help make tuition-free college a reality for more and more students. By helping local promise programs develop across the country, we can help break down partisan barriers, build the framework for more comprehensive statewide programs, and rekindle our country’s commitment to affordable and accessible higher education.

David Vines is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he studied political science and educational policy studies.

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