Tenn. County Mayors Seek Tuition-free Community College Education for Residents

MEMPHIS, Tenn.

The county mayors at Knoxville and Memphis say their residents should be able to attend community colleges for free.

Mayors A.C. Wharton of Shelby County and Mike Ragsdale of Knox County say they hope to arrange for such tuition-free education by building on scholarships and grants already available to community college students across the state.

“I think this program, if we’re able to bring it to fruition, will be one of the best ways to let the world know that we’re not some sleepy, big old county that’s just kind of plodding along,” Wharton said. “We want to blast our way into being able to produce a world-class work force. You can’t do that with merely a high school diploma.”

Wharton said details of the proposal are still unsettled and new sources of money will have to be found.

The basic idea is to put together a new tuition program through the Tennessee Urban Mayors Forum, a group recently formed by Ragsdale and Wharton to address problems particular to the state’s more populous counties.

The community college program, as envisioned, would provide public and private money to cover the amount of community college tuition that exceeds financial assistance for students already provided by state and federal scholarships and grants.

“That is, after the student goes forth and applies for Pell Grants and the HOPE scholarships, then this program would come up with whatever that gap is,” Wharton said.

During the 2006-2007 school year, more than 870 freshmen enrolled full-time in community college in Shelby County and received almost $272,000 from three grant and scholarship programs, Wharton’s office said, but the money fell short of covering total tuition costs.

Wharton said the county would need to raise about $1.4 million to finance the first year of such a free-tuition program.

“Whatever the cost is, I am willing to go out and get it,” he said.

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