The whole idea of free college in America is a linchpin of progressive politics, pushed by Bernie Sanders in his 2016 campaign and endorsed by any candidate trying to burnish his or her progressive credentials. In Washington, it’s a key item on House Democrats’ wish list for higher education. But as Republicans nationally have grown increasingly hostile toward universities they see as elitist, Republicans in Tennessee have gone precisely the opposite direction.
The state’s free-college program, called Tennessee Promise, has been offering two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates, regardless of income, since 2014.
Since then, it has boosted graduation rates and grown in popularity every year. It inspired President Barack Obama’s free community college push in 2015 and provided a model for a handful of other states that have launched free-college programs of their own, including New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, though few go as far as Tennessee’s. The results here have been so promising that the state’s conservative Legislature decided to double down, expanding free community college beginning last year to all adults, regardless of income, who don’t already have a credential. The program has been wildly popular: The state’s higher education commission had anticipated just 8,000 adults would apply for the expanded program; 33,258 did. Nearly 15,000 of them enrolled in the first semester.