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By Adam Edelman

As Democratic presidential candidates promote billion-dollar plans to make college free on the campaign trail, affordable higher education advocates across the political spectrum are pushing a simpler approach: Look to the states.

One state in particular — a Southern, reliably Republican one — has risen above the rest, lawmakers, education and policy think tanks told NBC News: Tennessee.

The Volunteer State’s “Tennessee Promise” program, passed in 2014 by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, offers two years of tuition-free community college or technical school to all high school graduates. An expansion of the program adopted in 2017, called “Tennessee Reconnect,” guaranteed two years of free community college or technical school to all adults in Tennessee who didn’t already have a degree or credential.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at a press conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 1, 2015, about his plan to grant more autonomy to six public universities in the Tennessee Board of Regents system.Erik Schelzig / AP file

“Regardless of what your politics are, you have to admit that income inequality is an issue. The question is what do we do about it. And I am a firm believer that a robust public education is the key. The great equalizer,” Haslam told NBC News in a recent interview. “If a good education is a requirement to enter the workforce, we have to give more people the opportunity do that.”

How it works

Tennessee’s program is considered a need-based “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that, after all other aid (including federal grants and scholarships) is factored in, the funding covers the remaining balance for tuition and mandatory fees. The program is available to all high school graduates, regardless of income status, and provides every student with a mentor to guide them through the application, financial aid and enrollment process. It also requires that all students complete eight hours of community service each semester, measures supporters say provide some accountability.

Tennessee Promise is funded entirely by an endowment that was created from the state’s lottery reserve fund. No tax increases were needed at any point, a crucial draw for state Republicans.

But even more critical to the program’s success was the fact that Haslam, who left office in January, framed it as an economic issue centered on job creation in his state — a strategy top education officials in Tennessee are encouraging national politicians to embrace.

“We needed more Tennesseans with a credential beyond high school,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission — the state’s de facto head of higher education.

The program has drawn plaudits from conservatives — who say that higher education policy is (and should be) governed principally by the states — and progressive groups, who have praised its simplicity and inclusivity.

Could the program work nationwide?

While its “last dollar” nature makes it dependent on available federal aid — which would seem to inherently preclude it from being used as an exact model for a national plan — education experts say many of its chief tenets should still be part of any effort to reform higher education and higher education debt-related policies.

“There’s a real appetite among people to have an education that gets them into the workforce. And a free associate’s degree from a community college is a really amazing route to go,” said Jessie Ulibarri, the executive director of the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive policy shop that helps draw up model state legislation that advances traditionally progressive issues.

“The idea of a free public education has broad appeal,” he added. “The fact that states like Tennessee are finding creative ways to do this shows that this doesn’t have to labeled just a progressive idea.”

Local and national advocates say the program has been wildly successfully thus far, and point to a series of statistics to prove it: Community college enrollment is up, as are overall college attendance, completion and retention rates.

According to data on the program collected by Tennessee state agencies, the FAFSA filing rate, which unlocks key federal aid dollars, rose substantially, too. And overall, student debt in the state has declined. (In 2018, Tennessee had the 10th least amount of average student debt, according to data analyzed by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, while the group’s 2015 study showed that Tennessee had the 16th least amount of average student debt).

Tennessee’s achievement, which the Obama administration once cited as an example in its own national push for free community college, has spurred the creation of similar programs in at least a half-dozen other states, such as Oregon and Rhode Island.

Critics, however, have pointed to the fact that Tennessee Promise and programs like it are not explicitly geared toward low-income populations, whose barriers to higher education also include substantial nontuition expenses like food, housing and books. (The Debt-Free College Act, proposed by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and endorsed by 2020 hopefuls Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, is one proponents say best addresses the needs of low-income students, since it would cover nontuition costs like books and living expenses.)

“That is really the area where many of them need additional support, and Tennessee’s plan doesn’t cover that,” Mamie Voight, the vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said.

Advocates acknowledge that, but point out that the process for accessing higher education in the U.S. is so comprehensively flawed that it makes sense to have a need-blind universal program, explaining that simple messaging and the elimination of cumbersome paperwork, or providing assistance with it, attracts the greatest amount of people.

“The way we talk to students — all students — about financial aid just doesn’t work. We assume they know what FAFSA is, what Pell Grants are, but they don’t,” Krause said. “And in devising this program, we knew that if we wanted Tennesseans to go to college, we were going to have fundamentally shock the system and give these kids a streamlined process.”

“Having broad-based programs that expand opportunity for everyone, period, regardless of your financial circumstances, is a really good way to go,” Ulibarri said.

He added that practicality and results matter, too — saying that while he is a fan of broader, more expensive plans being pushed by the likes of Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidates should also try to be realistic by focusing on the creation of similar state-level programs.

Proposals like Tennessee’s have been endorsed by 2020 Democrats Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Julián Castro — something that Haslam, despite being a Republican, suggested their competition might want to heed.

“I’m not sure they’re going to listen to me, but I would say, ‘Go look at what is actually happening, and what is actually working,’” he said.

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Politics

Pentagon says visits to Trump’s Scotland resort cost nearly $200,000

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. military spent almost $200,000 at Trump Turnberry between 2017 to 2019, according to documents that the Pentagon sent to Congress.

In a letter dated Sept. 12 to the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating military spending at Turnberry, the Pentagon acknowledged it had spent just over $184,000 at the president’s Scottish resort. That sum included $124,579 in lodging and $59,730 in unidentified additional expenditures between August 9, 2017 to July 26, 2019. The average cost of a room was $189 a night, the Pentagon said.

In the two years prior, the Air Force spent about $64,000 at the hotel, according to the Pentagon.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., responded to the revelations in a statement on Wednesday, saying “it appears that U.S. taxpayer funds were used to purchase the equivalent of more than 650 rooms at the Trump Turnberry just since August 2017— or the equivalent of one room every night for more than one-and-a-half years.”

The lawmakers called the Pentagon’s disclosures “woefully inadequate,” noting they failed to produce “any underlying invoices or travel records relating to spending” at the resort or at the local airport.

The committee first asked for the information in June. News of Air Force stays at the resort were first reported by Politico earlier this month.

According to the Washington Post, Trump’s Scottish resort lost around $4.5 million in 2017. But as Politico reported, the resort’s revenue increased by $3.1 million the following year.

The Pentagon also acknowledged that the Air Force had spent $16 million on fuel expenditures at Prestwick Airport between Jan. 20, 2017 and June 21, 2019.

“Although the Department asserted that it paid $3.38 per gallon for fuel, it did not provide any information on contemporaneous fuel rates at non-commercial sites, such as military bases elsewhere in Europe,” Cummings and Raskin said.

The Democratic lawmakers have said that the airport has lost millions of dollars in revenue in recent years, and its existence is crucial to the golf resort’s survival. The airport has also offered discounts and free rounds of golf to members of the U.S. military, they said, citing the Guardian.

The Oversight Committee is investigating whether the arrangement violates a clause in the Constitution which bars an office holder from profiting from their positions. The panel set a new deadline of Sept. 27 for the Pentagon to produce all invoices, contracts, agreements, and internal and external communications involving the arrangement.



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Election 2019 polls tracker: Tories hold strong lead as Lib Dems take out Labour

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TORIES hold a strong lead as the Liberal Democrats take out Labour as the second biggest party, a voting intention poll has revealed.

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Trump’s border visit draws few spectators, for or against his wall

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SAN DIEGO – President Donald Trump’s visit to the border with Mexico here was attended by only a handful of supporters and protesters, some saying a border wall would protect the nation and others that it won’t address the area’s real problem of smuggling tunnels.

Trump’s stop in the Otay Mesa community was announced Monday night, leaving little time to plan organized events for his 3 p.m. arrival. The first time he came to this neighborhood, in early 2018, dozens of anti-Trump protesters shouted at the president from both sides of the border.

A few die-hard Trump fans were there Wednesday wearing red and donning “Make America Great Again” and “USA” baseball caps.

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Supporter Danny Duran had an American flag draped over his shoulders as the president’s motorcade of armored Chevrolet Suburban SUVs rolled by en route to a dirt road that would take him to a section of upgraded border barriers, unveiled last month.

The wall, Duran said, is “good for his campaign, but it’s good for America.”

Though the barrier is part of a long-planned fence replacement, Duran was convinced this was Trump’s wall.

“We need the wall,” he said. “Why not protect our country? I got a fence on my property.”

The Trump well-wishers were confined to a neighborhood of industrial parks about a half mile from the president’s appearance at the border.

Some of the Trump supporters there didn’t want to talk to reporters for fear of having their words misconstrued — one called a reporter “fake news” — or because they believed it would endanger their families.

Duran, a Latino who speaks Spanish, was proud to speak out. “I don’g agree with everything Trump says,” he said, “but he’s doing a good job.”

Luis Garcia, who owns a packaging supplies business nearby, wasn’t as enthused. He said the president’s past threats to shut down the border and place tariffs on some Mexican goods has been bad news for a border economy dependent on trade between both nations.

“I’m from the border,” he said. “I deal with both countries. People here don’t like the president.”

A border wall won’t stop legitimate trade, he said, but neither would it protect the Otay Mesa community from its true scourge — tunnels that run from Mexico to warehouses here and attract cartel traffic — he said. They’ve been used to ship drugs wholesale into the United States.

“It makes no sense,” Garcia said of Trump’s wall. “The wall doesn’t work. It’s a campaign tactic.”

Trump wrapped up a two-day trip to California that included campaign fundraisers in San Francisco, Beverly Hills and San Diego.

The $147-million replacement barrier he observed Wednesday runs for 14 miles from Imperial Beach to Otay Mesa.

Trump plans to use $3.6 billion earmarked for the Pentagon to help construct 175 miles of wall along the southern border.

Last year Trump vowed that a new border wall would stop 99 percent of unauthorized crossings along the border at San Diego.

“Now we have a world class security system at the border,” Trump said Wednesday.

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