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At the end of their first semester of college, Gov. Bill Haslam talks about how the Tennessee Promise students, and the program, are doing.
Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

Rhode Island turned to Tennessee for college advice this week, and the governors of both states acknowledged how unusual the scenario might seem.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo hosted a conference call Thursday with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to discuss lessons he learned while rolling out the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which allowed high school graduates to go to community college without paying tuition. Raimondo, a Democrat, has proposed a similar program in Rhode Island, and noted that it was inspired by Haslam’s efforts in a deeply Republican state.

College scholarships have become a bipartisan issue in a ‘changing world’

“You have two governors that on the surface appear very different – one Republican, one Democrat, one male, one female, one in the Southeast, one in the Northeast,” Haslam said, according to a transcript of the call. “But I think we understand that the changing world means that folks in our position have to be prepared to lead in different ways.”

Tennessee was the first state in the nation to adopt a statewide scholarship that allowed new high school graduates to attend college tuition-free. Since the program launched in 2014, tuition-free college became a rallying point for Democrats. Many Democratic states — including Rhode Island, New York and Oregon — have adopted or considered the model pioneered by Tennessee.

“Quite frankly, this is a good idea,” Raimondo said. “It’s a bipartisan issue. This is about jobs.”

Throughout the call, Rhode Island college leaders quizzed Haslam about Tennessee Promise. In his answers, the governor shared parts of the origin story behind the program and the philosophy that helped shape it.

In Tennessee, students didn’t go to college because ‘their parents and grandparents hadn’t gone’

Haslam said the need for Tennessee Promise, and other college programs, stemmed from the fact that “we had too big of a culture here where people thought that school beyond high school wasn’t for them. Their parents and grandparents hadn’t gone to school beyond high school; they didn’t need to.

“It came to me when I was in one of our rural, more economically disadvantaged areas. And one of the principals of the high school said, ‘Our kids don’t go to school after high school. They’re not that kind of kids,'” Haslam said, recounting a conversation with a high school principal.

Working with his team, Haslam said he decided they “needed to shock the system.”

So, in 2013, they rolled out Drive to 55, a suite of programs aimed at pushing 55 percent of Tennesseans to complete a college education by 2025. In 2014, Haslam announced plans for Tennessee Promise.

Behind the ‘controversial’ move to allow anyone to use Tennessee Promise, regardless…