This fall, Cesar Sanchez, 18, will do something he never thought possible.
He'll enroll at Southwest Tennessee Community College through a state program called Tennessee Promise, which lets students complete two years of community college at no cost.
"At one point, I didn't see myself going to college after graduation," he said. "It made me really happy. It really made me set my mind to a goal and accomplish it."
While the Obama administration's proposal to make community college free languishes in the Beltway, several states, including Tennessee, are moving ahead with their own plans to make earning an associate's degree as standard as a high school diploma.
This month, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed into law a program that will offer tuition-free community college to the state's recent high school graduates. Other states are also exploring the concept.
"Today, we fling wide open the doors of opportunity by expanding access to postsecondary education, the precursor to a better life," Brown said in a statement after signing the bill.
It might initially seem surprising that a blue state and a red state are pursuing such similar goals, but demographic similarities between the states provide some clues.
Both Oregon and Tennessee have seen shifting populations in recent decades, with particular increases in the Latino population, according to Census figures. The Pew Research Center names Tennessee as having one of the fastest-growing Latino populations, with growth coming both from immigration and births in the state. The states have higher-than-average poverty levels and lower-than-average median household incomes. Fewer than 30 percent of residents in each state hold a bachelor's degree and there are thousands of students who may be interested in college but lack parental guidance and financial support when it comes to navigating the system.
"I would absolutely say this is the beginning of a nationwide conversation about going to community college." — Mike Krause, Tennessee Promise Executive Director
Students like Sanchez see an opportunity to go to college that didn't exist before.
Raised by a mother who came to the United States from Mexico and didn't attend college herself, Sanchez said his family had no money to pay for school.
"I went through a little stage where I ... was kind of feeling down," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do after high school."
Proponents of the Tennessee and Oregon programs have said offering tuition waivers will help boost college graduation rates and grow their states' economies as they adjust to less homogenous populations.
Tennessee's program is aimed at "workforce and economic development," said Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, the state's program. "The hazard is that people see it as [higher-education policy.]"
How to make college affordable is a contentious topic right now, and Tennessee's Republican governor doesn't necessarily want to look like he's getting in line with the White House's free community-college proposal. Students like Sanchez are not as concerned with how Tennessee Promise is categorized when it launches this year.
"I think it's a really good thing because it helps people like me," Sanchez said. "It gives them a hope for something."
High school seniors in Tennessee are eligible to attend two years of community college at no cost. Unlike the Oregon program, Tennessee's does not have a minimum GPA requirement, and students are required to perform eight hours of community service and meet with mentors. The Oregon program will permit students to enroll in community college within six months of graduating from high school at no cost. Students must have lived in Oregon for at least a year, have at least a 2.5 high school GPA and complete a FAFSA, the federal financial-aid application.
Oregon expects up to 6,000 students to enroll in the 2016-2017 school year, the expected launch year.
"I hope opportunities like this create a college-going culture," said Meghan Moyer, director of government relations at Portland Community College.
Her school expects, she said, to see between 1,200 and 2,000 students per year from the program.
But Moyer, whose college will be tasked with implementing the new program's policies on a daily basis, pointed out that most of her students are older (the average age is 29) and don't fit the requirements.
She also noted that any student, even one without financial need, could take advantage of the program.
"PCC would like to see students prioritized who would be unlikely to attend higher education without assistance," Moyer said.
Michael Horn, 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 need financial assistance the most. He'd like to see tests done on other approaches, such as income-sharing, where a company or other entity pays for a student's tuition and the graduate pays a percentage of his income for a set number of years in exchange, instead.
Mamie Voight, 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 allowing students who will attend college regardless of the programs to receive funds, 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 mind-set "completely fails to account for the catalyzing effect financial aid has," he said.
First-generation college students, he explained, don't necessarily know what FAFSA is, or what a Pell Grant is, or how to get them. With Tennessee Promise, the message that college is an option is clear, and there's a spelled-out pathway for how to achieve it.
"It has the potential to be a game-changer," said Dwayne Scott, vice president of Student Services and Enrollment Management at Southwest Tennessee Community College, where Sanchez plans to enroll.
While he doesn't know yet how many students his school will add as a result of the program, he supports the idea and said 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 each year.
"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.
Krause said that 58,000 students, or about 80 percent of the senior class, applied, and he expects 16,000 to actually enroll. Many of those who applied, he said, will likely attend four-year universities instead.
While Krause said figures aren't yet in on how many are first-generation college students or how many would be unable to attend otherwise, about half are on full Pell Grants, designed to help the nation's poorest students attend college.
"We have a range of anecdotal evidence indicating these students are different than the students who would typically enroll," he said.
Krause was involved in the development of the Oregon program and said the state isn't the only one that has reached out. While he declined to name other states who have inquired about the program, Krause said he has had "serious interest" from five other states and is aware that more are watching closely as the program gets underway.
"I would absolutely say this is the beginning of a nationwide conversation about going to community college," he said.
The momentum comes as President Barack Obama continues to call for free community college nationwide, and 2016 presidential candidates are laying out their own plans to make college more affordable. While he outlined a plan in January and several Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill to move it forward, the chances of community colleges nationwide becoming free are slim. The White House has said it would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years, a price tag that Republican lawmakers are reluctant to accept. But if interest in Tennessee's and Oregon's programs is an indication, more states may soon draft their own proposals.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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