Tennessee Promise’s Biggest Accomplishment: Adding ‘Free’ To College Conversation
A Volunteer State staff member helps Madison Cone, middle, complete the Tennessee Promise application, along with the community college's application for admission. Her mom came with her. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Tennessee Promise’s Biggest Accomplishment: Adding ‘Free’ To College Conversation

A Volunteer State staff member helps Madison Cone, middle, complete the Tennessee Promise application, along with the community college's application for admission. Her mom came with her. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN
A Volunteer State staff member helps Madison Cone (middle) complete the Tennessee Promise application, along with the community college’s application for admission. Her mom came with her. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

A small swarm of teenagers and parents are lining up in front of Sydny Simpson, with the Volunteer State Community College admissions office.

“Here is a refrigerator magnet for you,” she says. “If you want to join that tour group right there, we’ll get going in just a second.”

After the tour, the high school seniors grab seats in the library’s computer lab. Staff members guide them through the Tennessee Promise application, and everyone there says something similar to Erin Drexler, a homeschooled high school senior.

“I mean, why not? It’s free,” Drexler says. “And college is not cheap.”

“Who doesn’t like free?” says Helen Byrd, a parent who is sitting nearby.

They’re echoing a sentiment from Governor Bill Haslam as he unveiled Tennessee Promise earlier this year.

“To every student, from every kindergartner to every high school senior. We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college, or a college of applied technology, absolutely free.”

Changing The Conversation

Fast-forward eight months, and about 50,000 high school seniors have started the application process.

Of course, not all of those students will actually attend community college next fall: Some might decide they want to go to a four-year school instead, or go into the military, or take a year off. In fact, the state is only expecting about one out of every four students signing up will end up using Tennessee Promise.

But Mike Krause, the program’s executive director, says this is still big. “I’ve been in Tennessee government for eight years, and higher education specifically, and I’ve never seen this level of conversation around going to college,” he says.

The kicker is, many of these kids could get free tuition even without Tennessee Promise. Krause says the state expects that half of the students will end up getting their tuition covered by federal grants, not by the state at all. But a lot of these kids just didn’t realize they could get that money.

“They say, ‘I can’t afford college,’ and they shrug,” he says. “Tennessee Promise so far, I think the most powerful effect has been to change that conversation.”

Or, as the governor put it in a recent interview:

“Everyone understands free.”

Marketing ‘Free’

In other words, Tennessee Promise is an experiment in marketing as much as funding. But it’s interesting to note: State marketing materials don’t actually call it “free.” They’re calling it “tuition-free” — because college has plenty of other expenses.

Angela Boatman, assistant professor of public policy higher education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, points out that students have to buy books, for example.

“They have to travel to and from campus if they don’t live nearby,” she says. “They have to pay gas.”

In addition to these expenses, there’s also the opportunity cost of not working.

“Students that are attending college — especially full-time, which is what the Tennessee Promise requires of students — could be earning money working outside college, and they are essentially giving that up,” Boatman says.

But, she says, if more students are truly able to go to college and succeed, then it’s worth the tradeoff.

Back at Volunteer State, high school senior Madison Cole is signing the final paperwork for her Tennessee Promise application. A staff member asks her if she also filled out the college’s application for admission.

“No,” Cone says. “I started to but then I didn’t finish it.”

Cone’s mother, Diane Hudson, is peering over her shoulder. Hudson says she had to take out student loans to get through college. Now, her daughter has “the ability to get two years of education taken care of,” she says. “Take advantage of it and do it.”

Emily Siner

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter: @SinerSays
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