Free Community College: As Initial Praise Dies Down, Concerns Crop Up

Under Governor Haslam's "Tennessee Promise" proposal, high school graduates would be able to get two years of community college paid for. The funding comes primarily from a new $300 million endowment created from the state's lottery reserves. Credit: COD Newsroom via Flickr

Under Governor Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” proposal, high school graduates would be able to get two years of community college paid for. The funding comes primarily from a new $300 million endowment created from the state’s lottery reserves. Credit: COD Newsroom via Flickr

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s plan to make community college free to high school grads received instant national praise this week. One education leader calls it the best idea to boost college-going rates in a generation. But concerns are beginning to be raised.

If community college becomes free for all, and the first few years at a public university get a little more expensive, might that funnel lower-income students to two-year schools?

“I’m afraid we might make a two-tier system,” says professor Catherine Leisek, member of the National Council for Higher Education.

Leisek applauds the idea of removing financial barriers, but she worries about unintended consequences.

University of Tennessee president Joe DiPietro sees a lot of good in the governor’s proposal. But he also wonders if students will be as motivated

“Sometimes when put money down and have to put skin in the game about your education, you take a different attitude about your degree program,” he says.

Governor Haslam says he’s open to ideas, so long as he can still make two years of community college free. Even if the legislature approves, it would be fall of 2015 before the program begins.

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