2014 Influence List: Tennessee’s Pitchman

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December 15, 2014

Gov. William E. Haslam

If Gov. William E. Haslam knows how to do anything, it’s how to pitch higher education to his state’s residents.

"We had to do something to get people in Tennessee’s attention, and ‘free’ gets their attention," Governor Haslam said at an October gathering of state educators in Nashville. He was promoting the fact that some 50,000 students had applied to the Tennessee Promise plan, which uses state-lottery revenue to pay for tuition for two years of community college for any of the state’s high-school graduates.

The plan has caught the attention of policy makers across the nation who are looking for ways to increase college completion without spending a lot of state money.

Governor Haslam, 56, championed the idea of free tuition and made it a centerpiece of his legislative agenda this year. It is also a key to his campaign, "Drive to 55," to get 55 percent of the state’s residents to earn college credentials.

The program is based on a similar effort begun in 2008 in the county surrounding Knoxville, where the governor was then mayor. Since then the campaign has gone statewide and helped more than 10,000 students attend the state’s community or technical colleges.

This year Mr. Haslam decided to go a step further. Instead of relying on donations to pay for the tuition, he proposed setting aside $300-million from the state’s lottery money as an endowment. The money will be used only for tuition costs beyond any financial aid—a "last dollar" approach.

Like the original program, Tennessee Promise assigns volunteer mentors to students, who are also required to complete community service.

While it doesn’t actually make community college free—plenty of incidental costs are not covered by the plan—the idea is a hit. Applications for Tennessee Promise are now more than double what was expected, although a much smaller number of students are expected to actually enroll in a community or technical college in the fall.

Other states are taking notice. Mississippi considered a similar piece of legislation, and Oregon lawmakers are studying the issue.

The program has helped to establish Tennessee’s reputation as a leader in higher-education reform. The state has also become a leader with its "performance-based" approach to awarding state money, basing all of its appropriations for higher education on a set of achievement measures.

There is an upside for Governor Haslam as well: The plan gives him some credibility as a fiscal conservative who is willing to be creative to improve the state’s level of education. That came in handy when he ran for re-election this fall. In November, he won in a landslide.

—Eric Kelderman

Corrections (12/15/2014, 9:50 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.): The original version of this article said incorrectly that Governor Haslam's "Drive to 55" program was based on a program begun in Nashville while he was mayor there. He was actually mayor of Knoxville, and that's where the program began. The article also misrepresented the timing of the governor's re-election campaign. It is not happening in the future, but rather took place this past fall. The text has been corrected.