NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law Tuesday promising free community college tuition to every high school graduate in the state.
Michael Steele is principal of Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville. More than half of the seniors here applied to college.
"Most of our students live below the poverty line," he says. "Many of them don't have parents directly involved in their lives, many of them live with guardians, many of them live in state foster homes and some are homeless."
The Tennessee Promise would use $34 million a year from lottery funds to cover tuition for a two-year degree at a community college.
"Our family -- instead of two steps back, we're like, getting two steps up," says Nazje Mansfield, who plans to enroll and become a teacher. Her mother works the night shift at Walmart.
"I thought I was just going to have to take out a million loans and be paying them till I'm dead," Nazje says.
Thirty cities have similar programs, but Tennessee is unique because its offer has fewer restrictions.
A third of Tennesseans have a college degree, and Gov. Haslam wants to raise that to 55 percent.
Asked whether he thinks some may call the initiative an entitlement program, Haslam says, "We have a lot of entitlement programs in this country, and we've seen how much they cost us on the back end when people don't have the education they need. I say let's make this investment on the front end. I think it'll be better for the individual and better for our state in the long term."
Workers with a two-year degree earn about $57,000, while those with only a high school diploma make $35,000.
Critics of the Tennessee Promise have said it would siphon lottery money from other scholarship programs and discourage students from working hard. Principal Steele expects the opposite.
"I think it's going to have a huge impact on high school kids putting forth a greater effort, because they know the next two years, it's going to be taken care of," he says.
The Tennessee Promise goes into effect next year.