This story is part one of a two-part series about public higher education in Tennessee. Find part two here.

Nashville, Tenn., the home of country music, is a city where new musical talent gets discovered. At Nashville State Community College, 13 miles south of the city's stretch of honky-tonks and dance halls, the state is trying to find a different kind of talent: students like Eric Bihembo, who are the first in their family to go to college.

"College wasn't on my radar," said Bihembo, 23, who came to Nashville seven years ago as a Ugandan refugee through a relocation program.

Bihembo said that while growing up poor in Nashville, he didn't think he could afford college. In high school, he was working at a pizza joint downtown when his guidance counselor first told him about Tennessee's new free community college program.

“To me, it was too good to be true,” he said. “Free money where I could go and get free education? It was overwhelming. At the same time, I just wanted to check it out."

Since 2014, the state of Tennessee has promised all new high school graduates that they could enroll in a post-secondary associate or certificate program without paying for tuition out of pocket. The requirements? Students must meet with volunteer mentors monthly, do eight hours of community service before each semester and maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Since the program launched, nearly 88,000 new students have enrolled, and the percentage of Tennessee residents with some kind of college degree or certificate has risen from 36 percent to 43 percent in 2019.

While free community college is a reality in Tennessee, it's still a contested issue among the Democratic presidential candidates. The issue was raised at a debate in December.

"What we need right now is a revolution in education," Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said during the debate. "We need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and by taxing billionaires and by taxing Wall Street, we will cancel all student debt in this country."

All of the leading candidates are proposing, in some form, free college. But they're clashing over details: Which Americans should qualify to receive it? Which schools should participate? And who should pay for it?

Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., wants to offer free public college only to families earning up to $100,000 year.

"If you're in that lucky top 10 percent, I still wish you well. I just want you to go ahead and pay your own tuition," Buttigieg said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden supports making two years of community college tuition-free, and says he wants to pay for it by closing tax loopholes.

“Twelve years of education is no longer sufficient,” Biden said. “We need widespread access to affordable education."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to make public colleges tuition-free for all Americans and cancel student loan debt, and says she plans to pay for it with a 2 percent wealth tax on households worth more than $50 million.

"This is about money, but this is also about values,” Warren said. “We need to make an investment in our future, and the best way to do that is: Let's invest in the public education of our children."

In Tennessee, former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam made the successful push for free community college, not with a populist message, but a pragmatic one about churning out more qualified workers and attracting companies.

"As an ex-business person, I knew that nothing quite gets people's attention like 'free,'" Haslam told WGBH News.

The goal, he said, was simple: Increase the number of residents with college degrees and certificates to meet workforce demands.

"We had looked out at the state and realized that of all the jobs that are going to exist in Tennessee in 2025, 55 percent of them would require a degree or certificate beyond high school," he explained.

At the time, only a third of Tennessee residents had a degree or certificate, compared to 57 percent in Massachusetts in 2018. Haslam said he wanted to do something that would "shock the system and get people to pay attention and think like, 'Hey, I never thought that I would go to school, but maybe I will.'"

Haslam said the other reason was to stem growing income inequality in Tennessee by reaching urban and rural communities that are struggling economically.

Since 2014, the state says that more than 8,000 low-income students have taken the offer, with nearly 60 percent returning for the next academic year.

"Income inequality in our country is real,” Haslam said. “People are sort of surprised to hear a Republican say that, but it is real. That's what the numbers show. The question to me has always been: What are we going to do about it?"

Haslam, who is a billionaire, convinced lawmakers to use the state's lottery proceeds to pay for free community college.

The former governor dismisses Sanders' and Warren's general idea of making public college free for all Americans regardless of their income and paying for it with a wealth tax on uber-wealthy households like his own.

“The math doesn't add up,” he said. “There's not enough wealth to pay for all the different programs that are being talked about, so I have a fundamental issue around that."

Some college leaders in Tennessee have a fundamental issue with Haslam's free college program. Rural private schools near public community colleges have seen their enrollments plummet.

“Our first-time, full-time freshmen numbers did go down," said Claude Presnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, which represents 34 campuses across the state. "They went down about 25 percent [in 2015]."

Presnell said he thinks the program pushes too many students into community colleges, even if it's not the best fit.

"In the long run and over the years, the community colleges have not been as successful — even with low-income families and students — as the independent colleges and four-year universities," Presnell said.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, admits completion rates at Tennessee's community colleges are too low. But he said Tennessee did not see a massive shift of students who went to a two-year public community college who would have otherwise gone to a four-year private college.

“That didn't happen,” Krause said. “It happened in a few isolated pockets at a small magnitude.”

Instead, Krause notes, the free college program has brought in tens of thousands of students who weren't going to college otherwise — students like Bihembo.

Last year, he graduated from Nashville State on time with an associate's degree in computer application. Now he's working on a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

"My dream job is one day to work with the FBI doing cyber security,” Bihembo said. “I want to start as a police officer, whereby I can pick up all the experience and be able to apply it in the bigger world."

To give more students the experience needed to get ahead, in 2018 Tennessee expanded free community college to adult students — not just recent high school graduates — hoping to develop still more talent.