Last night the Republican Governor of Tennessee, William E. Haslam, announced his intention to make community college free for all residents of his state. The plan, revealed in Haslam’s State of the State address and dubbed “The Tennessee Promise,” would be funded through an endowment  supported by lottery proceeds. Haslam’s proposal, if implemented, would make Tennessee the first state in the country to guarantee free community college to its residents.

Actually, I should rephrase that. Tennessee would be the only state in the country to make such a guarantee, but it wouldn’t be the first. Free higher education is almost non-existent now, but it wasn’t always. If Tennessee makes community college free, it will be a welcome return to a practice that existed for much of the 20th century in a number of states.

There are some downsides to the plan. Because it would only cover community college,  students who intended to pursue a four-year degree would only be able to take advantage of it if they began at a CC and transferred later. Studies have shown that students are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree if they don’t have to switch colleges, and there are all sorts of less-tangible benefits to getting all of your college education in one place.

The fine print of the plan creates additional pressure for new students to choose community colleges over four-year schools, too. Under Haslam’s proposal, the state’s existing Hope Scholarship program would be cut from $4000 to $3000 a year for first- and second-year students, while Hope Scholarships for juniors and seniors would be raised to $5000 a year.

The model of community college as a component of the standard path to a four-year degree is one that I have qualms with as a matter of big-picture higher ed policy, and in that sense the Tennessee Promise isn’t quite everything it might be. But that’s a quibble, really. This is excellent news.

Free public higher education is a worthy goal, and it’s a policy proposal that’s beginning to get some traction in the public discourse. For a whole raft of reasons, I think free community college is an excellent place to start.

Community colleges serve a student body that is poorer, on average, than four-year colleges do, and at higher risk of leaving college without a degree. Money spent on easing access to CCs is money spent on the students who need the most support.

And as Kevin Slavin of Cooper Union wrote recently in a different context, “free” is not merely an extension of “cheap,” but an entirely different way of thinking. By taking funds that had been previously targeted toward reducing the cost of higher ed and diverting them to making an entire sector of public higher education free to all comers, Tennessee would instantly change the nature of the college funding debate not just in Nashville but across the country.

More as the story develops. I’m going to be following this one closely.