Gov. Bill Haslam visited the floor of a factory in Cookeville Tuesday for a ceremonial signing of his initiative to provide free community college or tech school to all Tennesseans who seek it.
The General Assembly put its stamp of approval on the Tennessee Promise legislation in overwhelming bipartisan votes last month. The measure passed 87-8 in the House and 30-1 in the Senate.
This week Haslam’s touring the state to talk up the new program, which he calls “a bold promise” that shows the state under his leadership is “fighting the rising cost of higher education.”
Under the Tennessee Promise, any graduating senior will be eligible for two years of paid-for tuition, provided they maintain a 2.0 GPA. Also while in school, they have to work with an education “mentor” and agree to contribute eight hours of community service.
“We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee,” Haslam said.
The governor plans to visit Jackson and Covington on Wednesday, Blountville, Knoxville and Chattanooga on Thursday, and Nashville on Friday.
Haslam said the company he visited May 13, Tutco, Inc., which manufactures heating-coil elements, was one of those that told him Tennessee ought to improve its education and training opportunities for graduating high school seniors if it wants to attract and keep industrial employers.
“I heard a pretty similar message no matter where I went, and that was, ‘We love being in Tennessee but we need a better-trained workforce,” Haslam said. “I heard messages from Tennesseans that, ‘I want to get further training, but cost is an issue to me.’ So that is what drove us to kind of come up with the dream of the Tennessee Promise.”
The governor unveiled the two-free-years proposal during his state-of-the-state address in February.
The idea behind the state tour this week is to “celebrate with some of the people who inspired the idea” when the governor traveled Tennessee two years ago on a brainstorming mission with business and education leaders to devise policies to enhance higher education opportunities with the hope of enticing more companies to the state.
The governor said getting people two years of “absolutely free” community college will go a long way toward putting a four-year college degree in financial reach for a lot of Tennessee students and families who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
Haslam didn’t have much comment about the news that state schools are looking to bump tuition next year, except to say the Board of Regents will have to make the call. The governor did suggest, though, that the Tennessee Promise is designed to help offset just those kind of upwardly creeping costs.