NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two years ago, Tennessee made history by becoming the first state to offer free college tuition to graduating high school students.
It’s a program called Tennessee Promise, and this spring, the first group of beneficiaries will be graduating college with their associate degrees.
Before he learned about the program, Rance Muirhead was ready to put his career goals on the shelf.
“College for me was going to be a self-paid deal,” Muirhead said.
He was one of many high school students wondering about how he would pay for college.
“I was definitely stressed out, thinking I was just going to have to join the workforce,” he said.
In 2014, when he was a senior, Gov. Bill Haslam made an announcement about Tennessee Promise.
It was a game-changer for Muirhead and thousands of other young men and women.
“I was going to be able to go to school now, debt free,” he said.
This spring, he will graduate from Volunteer State Community College with an associate degree in business.
“I’m the first, cream of the crop off the Tennessee Promise, and I’ve been able to stick with it,” Muirhead said.
Since the program began in 2015, more than 33,000 students have enrolled in community college or trade school, paid for by the state.
“One of the things we’re trying to take on is the problem in Tennessee with not enough Tennesseans that have a college degree,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Commission.
The average payout is just over $1,000 per student, for a total cost of $35.9 million since its implementation in 2015.
“Tennessee’s lottery is very successful. We’ve been fortunate to amass the sort of funds to support this, and all funds come at no cost to the taxpayers,” Krause said.
The governor wants 55 percent of the state’s residents to have a college degree by 2025.
“States with higher levels of college graduates have lower crime. States with high levels of college graduates have better health,” Krause said.
As for Muirhead, he wants to start his own landscaping business.
“I would’ve entered the workforce potentially working for somebody instead of starting my own business,” he said.
According to state numbers, 63 percent of students who enrolled under Tennessee Promise in 2015 enrolled again in 2016.