But Moyer pointed out that most of her students are older (the average age is 29) and don’t fit the requirements, adding that any student—even one without financial need—could take advantage of the program. “[Portland Community College] would like to see students prioritized who would be unlikely to attend higher education without assistance,” she said.
Michael Horn, the executive director of education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank that focuses on using “disruptive innovation” to develop solutions for the world’s problems, said his concern with the idea of free community college is that the people who will take advantage of the offer are not the students who most need financial assistance. He’d like to see studies done on other approaches to expanding college access—such as income-sharing, in which a company or other entity pays for a student’s tuition and the graduate pays a percentage of his or her income for a set number of years in exchange, instead.
Mamie Voight, the director of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which focuses on ways to expand access to college to underserved students, shares Horn’s concern. Instead of initiatives that make funding available to students who would attend college regardless of the programs, she’d like to see funds directed specifically to low-income students. The programs work by helping fill the gap left after Pell and other grants kick in, and Voight is concerned that someone with a higher income who isn’t eligible for those grants could ultimately receive more money.
But to Krause, the Tennessee program’s director, that mindset “completely fails to account for the catalyzing effect financial aid has.” First-generation college students, he explained, aren’t necessarily familiar with the FAFSA or Pell Grants, or how to get them. Tennessee Promise’s makes it clear that college is an option for everyone, he said, and that there’s a spelled-out pathway for how to achieve it.
“It has the potential to be a game-changer,” said Dwayne Scott, who oversees student services and enrollment at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where Sanchez plans to enroll.
While Scott doesn’t know yet how many students his school will add as a result of the program, he supports the effort. He added that his school hasn’t been tasked with additional work beyond reminding students (in conjunction with the nonprofit Tennessee Achieves, the program’s partner) that they must complete community-service hours and fill out the FAFSA annually.
“I don’t think we make it easy for first-generation students to see themselves in college,” Krause said. “What the Tennessee Promise brings is a clear sense of vision ... that you can go tuition-free, you are college material.”
That message appears to be resonating with at least some students in the state. Krause said that 58,000 students, or about 80 percent of public-school seniors, applied, and he expects about 16,000 to actually enroll. Many of those who applied, he said, will likely attend four-year universities instead.