Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is pushing the bill, which comes three years after Tennessee became the first state in the nation to make community college tuition-free for new high school graduates. A number of other states later enacted similar measures.
Supporters of the bill had hoped that Tennessee would be the first state to offer free community college to all adults, but New York earned that honor. In a signal that the free college movement is gaining momentum, New York just passed a law that provides free tuition at both community colleges and four-year universities to adults earning up to $100,000 during the first year of the program.
Members of Tennessee's Republican-dominated state Legislature broke out into applause after one of the bill's main sponsors introduced the legislation.
Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, told fellow lawmakers that he didn't graduate from college until he was 33 years old, and the legislation would help many older students.
"I'm the only person in my family that has ever gotten a college degree, so I know how important this is," he said.
Haslam wants 55 percent of Tennesseans to have a college degree or certificate by 2025. The push to expand community college to older adults as well as recent high school graduates is an acknowledgement that the Drive to 55 campaign needs older learners.
"Tennessee needs 871,000 to reach the goal of 55 percent, but mathematically there is no way to reach that goal just by serving the high schools students," Powers said.
Once fully implemented, the program is expected to cost the state $11 million a year, paid for through lottery proceeds. If the bill becomes law, both full and part-time students would be eligible to participate as early as fall 2018.