A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gena Bigler: Let’s follow Tennessee’s example and provide two years’ free college tuition

Access to a free public education is a founding principle of our nation.  Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Our southern neighbors in Tennessee are working on a way to expand on this basic principle to keep up with educational expectations.
The proposed “Tennessee Promise” would provide two years of free community college or technical school to high school graduates. The plan will be funded with money from the lottery which was set up with the purpose of funding education. The program is projected to cost $34 million per year.

At a time when students are graduating with crippling debt, this is a life raft for many students. Outstanding student debt is $1.225 trillion and continues to rise about $100 billion per year. That is a lot of debt and a lot of money not being circulated. The average student loan debt per student is just under $30,000.
Over the past 10 years, college tuition has risen at a rate that far outpaces other expenses. It has grown more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index, even outpacing medical care (another noteworthy growing expense) by double. From August 2003 to August 2013, college tuition escalated nearly 80 percent. The only expense to keep pace was college text books.
It also provides an opportunity for education for many who may not be able to obtain a degree otherwise. In Kentucky, 62 percent of college graduates leave college with debt. That is slightly higher than Tennessee where 58 percent of graduates have student loan debt.
Employers today are looking for educated workers. Without a college degree, there is little chance of employment. Recent reports show that for each job opening, there are three unemployed people. The odds of finding meaningful work without a degree are not good.
Beyond benefiting the educated individual, an educated workforce increases a state’s appeal to potential employers. States are no longer simply competing with other each other; we are competing with the world. In a global economy, we are competing with nations that do provide free higher education to their citizens. International creative minds are not distracted by massive student debt payments. They are not carefully considering the profitability of each major before choosing what they passionately want to study and how they will spend their working life.
Tennessee’s plan will give their young people an advantage and Kentucky should consider a similar path. Kentucky launched a lottery program 25 years ago in 1989 to fund education. Since then, $2 billion of the profits have been used for scholarships for Kentuckians. Another $1.5 billion has gone to the general fund to be spent as directed by our legislators. Our lottery program netted over $223 million in 2013. Part of that income could support a program similar to “Tennessee Promise.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Both he and Thomas Jefferson knew the value of an educated populace. How many bright creative minds are underutilized because of a lack of funding? Expanding the educational opportunities to young Kentuckians benefits all of Kentucky.

Gena Bigler is passionate about public service and credits her time serving nonprofits in AmeriCorps and Volunteers in Service to America (V.I.S.T.A.) with teaching her extreme budgeting and bargain shopping. Gena is now CFO of McNay Settlement Group and serves on the board of the Lactation Improvement Network of Kentucky (L.I.N.K.). Gena would be happy to hear from you at lgbigler@gmail.com.


Click here to read more columns from Gena Bigler.

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