Thursday, June 06, 2019

Tenn. Republicans embraced free college before national Democrats did; could another red state do likewise today?

This college and nearby Lynchburg, Tenn., pop.6,336, are the object examples of the story. (Politico photo by Hollis Bennett)
"The whole idea of free college in America is a linchpin of progressive politics," Benjamin Wermund writes for "The Agenda" on Politico. "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 "has been offering two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates, regardless of income, since 2014."

Every year since, Wermund writes, "It has boosted graduation rates and grown in popularity. . . . 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."

Wermund says Tennessee's experience "holds lessons for not only how to talk about education in America, but how to bridge political divides by reaching out to those who feel left behind, in rural and urban America alike." The idea was pushed by Bill Haslam during his two-term governorship, which ended in January, "as a pragmatic response to decades of failed economic-development policy," especially in rural areas, where college-going lags. That helped make it politically palatable, as did getting the money from the state lottery, requiring students to do community service, and making it available to all regardless of income -- not another "poverty program." Also, the program is "last dollar," meaning it pays only what federal Pell grants do not, about $45 million a year.

However, Democrats' embrace of the idea nationally probably means that a Republican governor anywhere couldn't get it done now, said Kim Dancy, assistant director of research and policy at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonpartisan group focused on promoting access to higher education. “It wasn’t as strongly associated with Democratic politics at that time,” she told Wermund. “I would be very surprised if a Republican governor was able to do this today.” One test of the issue's punch might be in Kentucky, which has a long border and rivalry with Tennessee, and elects a governor this year. The rural candidate in the Democratic primary, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, favors such a program, and the winner, Attorney General Andy Beshear, is expected to contrast his advocacy of public education with the stances of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

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