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Tennessee is the first state to offer free community college

Downtown Nashville skyline with the Shelby Street bridge and the Cumberland River.
Davel5957 | Getty Images
Downtown Nashville skyline with the Shelby Street bridge and the Cumberland River.

The list of places in the U.S. where you can attend college for free is growing.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam recently announced the launch of the Tennessee Reconnect Act, which will make community college free for nearly every adult in the state.

The guidelines are simple: If you have been a Tennessee resident for at least a year and do not have an advanced degree, you can go to a community college or participating school for free. Tennessee Reconnect will offer students last-dollar scholarships, funded by the state lottery and is expected to cost $10 million.

This act is part of Haslam's larger Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with advanced degrees or certificates to 55 percent of residents by 2025.

Tennessee Reconnect itself is an expansion of the Tennessee Promise scholarship. Announced in 2014, the scholarship has funded over 33,000 high school students attending community and technical college tuition-free. Haslam argues that expanding this program to adults is the logical next step.

"We need to reach the working mother that went to college but didn't complete, or the son with sons of his own who like his dad never went to college but knows that he needs to upgrade his skills," said Haslam at a press event in May. "I'm introducing the next step in making certain that everyone in Tennessee has the opportunity to earn their degree."

This act will be particularly meaningful for the more than 900,000 Tennesseans who have some college credit but no degree. With cost seriously reduced, the governor is hoping that many of these adults will choose to go back to school and complete their degrees.

Carie Huffman, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom was the first person to officially sign up for Tennessee Reconnect. Having left Trevecca Nazarene University when she was 18, Huffman is returning to school with the hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher.

"This is an incredible opportunity, after 20 years I can go back and get my degree and become a teacher," she said. "I don't know what I'm getting myself into with two kids, but I can go to school when they are in class during the day and at night when their dad gets home."

This act is a major milestone in the campaign for college affordability. In February, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to offer free college to all residents regardless of wealth or education level. In April, New York became the first state in the country to offer free four-year public college for families who make less than $125,000.

Tennessee's program differs from these in that it does not take wealth into consideration. This program is also unique in that it has been spearheaded by a largely Republican administration in a state with a significantly lower cost of living than the others offerings similar opportunities.

The governor argues that this program is not just the right thing to do, it also is a smart investment in Tennessee's economy.

"This is about jobs, it's about math, and it's about the Tennessee we can be," says Haslam.

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