As student loan debt reaches a national high of $1.2 trillion, Tennessee has responded by offering free tuition for low-income students attending community colleges.
Concern has surfaced among educators and economists that the increase in the cost for higher education is leading new high school graduates to question whether a college education is worth the cost.
“Financial aid was supposed to reduce the influence of existing family financial resources on college attainment, but those resources are now a stronger determinant than ever of children’s college prospects,” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in her paper “Redefining College Affordability: Securing America’s Future with Free Two Year College Option.”
Tennessee's Legislature responded this year by offering two years of college for free to low-income students, who might not otherwise have a chance at an education.
"Students being able to say, 'I know I can go to college' changes the discussion dramatically," John Morgan, Tennessee Board of Regents chancellor, told The Tennessean. "Then students, instead of worrying about whether they can afford it, can worry about their classes."
Tennessee Promise is similar to Tulsa Community College’s program Tulsa Achieves, which was created in 2007.
"We established Tulsa Achieves …," Tom McKeon, Tulsa Community College president, told NPR, "because we no longer believed that a high school diploma was sufficient in terms of the jobs of the future."
According to Pew Research’s report the “Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” those with only a high school diploma and no college are creeping closer to the poverty line. They found that in 2012 the average income of a person with only a high school diploma was $28,000. According to the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines, the poverty line is $23,850 for a family of four.
With the increased demand for college graduates, the cost of getting that degree has skyrocketed, creating a generation of people swimming in student loan debt. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, American student loan debt has reached nearly $1.2 trillion, overshadowing credit card debt by nearly $550 billion.
"It's time to make some kind of piece of higher education really and truly affordable to Americans as we think about the future of our economy," Goldrick-Rab told NPR.
Tennessee and Tulsa Community College may have an answer in their programs.
CBS reported that Tennessee plans to pay for the tuition with $34 million from the state lottery money every year, whereas Tulsa Community College pays for its program, which costs $3,400 per student per year, with property taxes.
Oregon is currently considering a similar program for its students, while legislatures in Massachusetts and Mississippi have tabled the idea for now as lobbyists refine their plans.
McKeon said 8 of 10 students who take advantage of the Tulsa programs finish their two years of schooling.
But Goldrick-Rab argues that free tuition isn’t enough. “Tuition-free programs are a good idea, but they don't address the underlying problem: that student financial aid policies just haven't kept up with the cost of higher education.
"It is no longer the case that only people making very little money are having a hard time paying for college," Goldrick-Rab said to NPR. "I think that either we resolve this issue by providing at least one option for going to college without accruing debt, or we risk the future generations of this country deciding to forgo college.”
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