Tennessee is picking up the tab for community college students

College is worth it, but benefits some more
College is worth it, but benefits some more

Free community college for all may sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but it is the reality for 15,000 students in Tennessee this fall.

The state became the first to make community college free for graduating high school seniors. All they have to do is complete eight hours of community service and attend two meetings with a mentor before each semester, as well as maintain a 2.0 GPA. They also have to apply for federal and state grants. Any remaining cost will be picked up by the state.

The new program, known as Tennessee Promise, brought a wave of new students to community colleges this fall. The number of those attending full time straight from high school grew 15%. In total, about 15,000 students have taken advantage of the program this year.

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"It gave me a way to go to college without putting my family in a financial problem," said Micayla Moody, a freshman at Northeast State Community College.

It's not that she wasn't planning to go to college at all, but she decided that the price tag at a four-year state school was too big for her family to handle -- especially when community college became free.

"There are five kids in my family. This was kind of my backup plan, but eventually I found out that I was not going to receive the amount of money I thought I would from federal aid," she said.

Moody is studying to become a physical therapist. She's saving money now and plans to transfer to a four-year college after getting her associate's degree.

The program, which is being funded by the state lottery fund, is not as expensive as it sounds. The average cost per student is $1,165 a year. Overall, the state will spend about $12 million on the program this year.

"We're excited that Tennessee Promise is starting a conversation in many families about going to college that wouldn't have happened in the past," said Mike Krause who was tapped by the governor to run the program.

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Free community college is an idea that's gaining traction. President Obama is pushing for it nationally, and Oregon recently passed similar legislation.

Students at some community colleges in Tennessee have been able to get some, if not all of their costs covered for years. Sullivan County started providing funds that cut students' costs to attend since 2001. And a Knoxville-based nonprofit group called tnAchieves has been facilitating free community college since 2008.

Still, the statewide program is helping spread the word, even in places where similar programs were already in place. Northeast State, located in Sullivan County, almost doubled its freshman class this fall to about 1,200.

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"We have many students who would never have gone to college if it weren't free and a lot who would have gone to a university but chose to come here because it is free," said college president Janice Gilliam.

She's working on getting more of her students to graduate. Only 36% finish their associate's program at Northeast State in three years, but Gilliam is working to bring that up.

Last year, the school implemented a mandatory mentoring program and curriculum is changing so that new students don't have to take all their core classes right away, which can discourage them from continuing.

"It took me six years to finish community college. A lot of our students are parents who are also working. They don't have an option," she said.

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