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Tennessee Promise Lets Kids Start College For Free


President Obama's unveiled a new plan to make community college free for students, but Congress may not pass that plan. It would cost $60 billion over 10 years. Tennessee isn't waiting. Last year, the state offered tuition-free community college to every qualified high school graduate. Ninety percent of the state's senior class applied. The exact number that enrolled this fall hasn't been tabulated yet. The pioneering program is called Tennessee Promise. It grows out of a private initiative in Knoxville when now-Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, was the mayor. And it's funded by the Tennessee state lottery. Paul Leddy is a counselor at Glencliff High School in Nashville and joins us from his office. Mr. Leddy, thanks for being with us.

PAUL LEDDY: Thanks so much.

SIMON: What have you seen this program do to change lives?

LEDDY: Well, at the ground level, you know, for those students who may not have imagined a college future for themselves, now they can see themselves on campus. It's remarkable. It's remarkable.

SIMON: Mr. Leddy, you're a counselor there at Glencliff High. And I wonder how this program may have changed what you - what you often talk about to students during their junior and senior year.

LEDDY: Well, I was - I was speaking with another counselor here this morning about it, and she put it in a very remarkable way. She said when you have the conversation and you include the word free, it opens up the students' minds in a way that maybe we couldn't do before. It sets off a light bulb internally, emotionally, intellectually, in a way that - that maybe we didn't have the tools to do before to really connect them with possibilities for their future.

SIMON: Could you tell us about what it's like to talk to parents about this program?

LEDDY: We get to have some of these first-time discussions with parents where they didn't realize my student who graduates high school - wait a minute, you're telling me that they - in the state of Tennessee, they have the opportunity for two years or for a technical certificate program free of cost to me? And sometimes they tear up. Sometimes they're speechless. Sometimes I reach across the room and - to shake hands with two hands. Sometimes I give hugs to a mother who has nothing to say. She's shaking and she's crying. And these are lasting moments. These are the things that keep us going when otherwise it may seem we have a whole lot of bad news to deliver.

SIMON: As an educator, Mr. Leddy, do you have any concern that, you know, the mentality sometimes goes that because it's free, students - everybody involved might not take it seriously and treat community college as just a continuation of high school?

LEDDY: I've heard that. I don't share the view. At the high school level, where we are, and when we see the struggles the students have, when we see parents working two, three, four jobs to try to afford the basics, the subsistence needs for their families - that argument or that view kind of rings hollow. Our students are very appreciative. Our students feel that they're valued. They feel like someone is listening at the state level and someone is looking out for their futures.

SIMON: The program is funded by the - by the Tennessee state lottery. So I guess if you want to - if you want to support education, buy a lottery ticket.

LEDDY: Yeah. I don't know fully how - how that piece of it works. But I'll buy a few scratch-offs this weekend.

SIMON: Paul Leddy, who is a counselor at Glencliff High School in Nashville, thanks for being with us.

LEDDY: Thank you so much, Scott. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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