State Sen. Todd Gardenhire

NASHVILLE — Two-thirds of state voters surveyed in a new poll say they back granting in-state public college and tuition rates to Tennessee high school graduates whose families brought them illegally as children to the U.S.

Sixty-six percent of 1,004 voters surveyed in the Vanderbilt University Poll say such students deserve in-state tuition instead of out-of-state rates, which can be three times as much.

Fifty-five percent of Republicans in the survey said they supported in-state tuition rates for the undocumented students. Forty-eight percent of self-identified tea party supporters backed it, while 49 percent opposed it.

The poll was conducted May 4-14 and has an overall margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.3 percent.

"It's fair to say that this is an issue that has broad support across the state," said Dr. John Geer, co-director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

The question was among a number of political and policy issues presented to registered voters in the survey.

Attempts to grant in-state tuition to undocumented Tennessee high school graduates has been a major issue in the General Assembly over the past three years. Two years ago, a bill easily cleared the GOP-controlled Senate but failed in the Republican-run House by a single vote.


This year, the bill failed in a House panel on a tie vote, leaving a number of young would-be students in tears.

The effort has been spearheaded in the Senate by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who has repeatedly stressed that providing the students with the same public higher education tuition as other Tennessee residents will lead to their ability to get better-paying jobs, resulting in far less public expense down the road.

"That's good," Gardenhire said of the poll findings, adding when he first polled the issue locally four years ago, 56 percent of Republicans said they opposed the in-state tuition idea.

The senator said as he continues explaining to colleagues the economic benefits not only for the students but the public at large, he believes he is finding "very few people can be against helping."

"I think there's a chance it can make it out [of the General Assembly] next year," said Gardenhire, noting Gov. Bill Haslam's gas tax proposal this year complicated action on any number of issues.

Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said, "The overwhelming support for the bill shown in the poll reaffirms what we've heard from teachers, business owners, and people of faith across the state: letting kids go to college upholds our values and benefits our entire community."

With the bill's failure this year by a single vote in the House committee, Teatro said: "Hundreds of undocumented students walked across the graduation stage this month without the chance to go to college. Legislators that fought against these students are clearly out of touch with the majority of Tennesseans; hopefully they'll take note of the poll and support this common-sense bill next year."

In another poll finding, voters for the first time since at least 2012 have elevated health care as being of equal importance to the overall economy.

And Tennesseans' thinking about the various components of the health care debate have evolved, as well, illustrating the difficulties not only for President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans in the GOP-run Congress, including Tennessee, as they seek to change, eliminate or replace the Affordable Care Act, said Josh Clinton, co-director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

Approval of the Affordable Care Act in Tennessee reached an all-time high in the poll's history, although it remains well below 50 percent — 29 percent, to be precise.

Backing efforts to fix the ACA instead of simply repealing it or repealing and replacing it, grew to one in three respondents, a 5-percentage-point increase since November. Meanwhile, 22 percent of poll respondents said they support a single-payer health care system, representing a 6-point increase since the election.

Registered voters in the survey showed strong support for three major provisions in the ACA, with nearly eight in 10 supporting a requirement for insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, as well as not charging people because of them. And they also back provisions allowing young adults to remain on their parents' insurance plan until age 26.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.