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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Pretty soon, going to community college in Tennessee may be absolutely free. The state's Republican governor unveiled that proposal in his annual State of the State address this week. He's trying to boost Tennessee's higher education rates. Fewer than a third of residents hold even a two-year degree.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports the announcement is already driving up interest in two-year schools.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: A community college free-for-all has been tried elsewhere, though not sustained. There's always a nagging question.

GOVERNOR BILL HASLAM: So I know you're wondering, how do we pay for this?

(LAUGHTER)

FARMER: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam told state lawmakers he'll tap into a mound of excess cash generated by the state's lottery. Roughly $300 million would go into an endowment. The returns would pay to send high school seniors without other scholarships to community college.

HASLAM: Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.

(APPLAUSE)

FARMER: It's an effective one-liner that's been praised by education leaders and students.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)

RANDY PRIOR: There you go.

FARMER: An electrical wiring simulator tells Randy Prior to try again. He's studying engineering at one of Tennessee's 13 community colleges. He loves the idea of free tuition.

PRIOR: That's awesome. I think that's great.

FARMER: For 27-year-old Vanecia Akins, money prevented her from starting a degree right after graduation.

VANECIA AKINS: That's one of the major things that kept me from school. I didn't know how I was going to pay for it.

FARMER: Breaking down this financial barrier has been praised by national higher ed officials. One told The New York Times it's the best idea for boosting college participation in a generation.

Even frequent foes of Tennessee's governor hopped on board. State Senator Jim Kyle of Memphis has wanted to use more of the lottery money for years. He says community college makes perfect sense.

STATE SENATOR JIM KYLE: Quite frankly, you can get just as good of an education in most instances and you can do it at less cost to the taxpayer, which means more people can go.

FARMER: The move already has families of high school seniors taking a closer look at two-year schools.

KYLE: That very situation is being played out in this Senate office with one of our staffers.

FARMER: She's the grandmother of Alexis Frierson and immediately called the high school senior after learning of the governor's plans. Frierson was asked to consider staying closer to home instead of attending the University of Memphis.

ALEXIS FRIERSON: That's just not what my mind is set on, going to a two-year and then transferring.

FARMER: From the state's perspective, though, at least a student would have an associate's degree if they didn't go on.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE COHEN: Yeah, it looks great. But in reality, when you're dealing with limited funds, it's not so good.

FARMER: Congressman Steve Cohen helped start the lottery as a Tennessee lawmaker. As in several other states, ticket sales are used primarily for four-year, merit-based scholarships. Under the governor's community college plan, there would be no grade requirement.

COHEN: You're going to spend a lot of money and time on people who aren't going to graduate.

FARMER: And to help pay for the proposal, the four-year scholarships would be cut by $1,000 for freshmen and sophomores.

Catherine Leisek of the National Council for Higher Education says that money could make all the difference.

CATHERINE LEISEK: Students who are, you know, scholastically prepared for university will be pushed into a two-year system possibly because of the money.

FARMER: Would they really go on to finish a bachelor's degree? It's impossible to know. But Leisek says the higher education world will be watching Tennessee to find out.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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