Tennessee does not immediately come to mind as a progressive force in science and technical education. Even today the legacy of the infamous 1925 Scopes trial persists: a relatively new state law invites teachers to criticize mainstream science, be it evolution or global warming.

Yet the antediluvian “Monkey Bill,” as opponents call the 2012 legislation, has not prevented the state from taking the national spotlight as an educational innovator. In May, Republican governor Bill Haslam signed a bill that will make Tennessee's two-year community colleges and technical schools free to any high school graduate starting in 2015.

Community colleges are pillars of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. They train technicians for jobs in leading-edge industries and grant associate's degrees that let students finish the last half of their higher education at a four-year institution. While the gap in economic well-being between college graduates and those with only a high school diploma grows ever wider, community colleges serve as gateways for the underrepresented and the working class. Nationwide, 40 percent of community college students are in the first generation of their families to attend college, more than 55 percent of Hispanics in college are enrolled in community colleges, and 40 percent of community college students hold down full-time jobs.

The National Science Foundation has long recognized the importance of two-year schools as training grounds for high-tech industries such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. It devotes more than $60 million annually to its Advanced Technological Education program, which develops curricula to immerse students, for instance, in the nuances of cell cultures and standard deviations. Graduates of these courses go on to careers in the laboratories of Genentech and the command centers of nuclear power plants. Veterans returning to the workforce receive training for technical careers in the aerospace industry.

The Tennessee law will enable students to attend the state's 13 community colleges and 27 technical schools tuition-free in hopes of raising the number of college graduates in the state from 32 to 55 percent by 2025. (The national average is now 42 percent.) The program will be funded largely by lottery money and will also somewhat reduce scholarships at the state's four-year institutions. If a trade-off has to be made, this one may be worth it to upgrade a workforce judged in one survey to be of low quality. Other states—and the private sector—are watching closely. Oregon has plans to make community college free, and Mississippi may try again after the death of a bill this year. These efforts should be viewed as models for other states to emulate. To succeed, though, the two-year schools will need a lot of help.

Community colleges have long wrestled with the responsibility of having to offer remedial education for entrants who arrive at their doors without a proper grounding in basic skills. The educational deficits are one reason only 32 percent of Tennessee's students finish at state-run community colleges, which is why Haslam's program appoints “mentors” to ease the transition.

To ensure that the newly enrolled reach graduation day, administrators of community colleges must emphasize accelerated remedial programs to get students through the basics and into career-related classes quickly enough to avoid the frustration and despondency that lead to elevated dropout rates.

The two-year colleges should also give serious consideration to new teaching methods that could maximize the time teachers have to interact with their students. Bill Gates, whose foundation has contributed tens of millions to remedy the failings of two-year schools, recommended in a speech last year that community colleges experiment with “flipped classrooms.” Students watch lectures from MOOCs (massive open online courses) at home. In class, instead of getting lectures, they complete homeworklike exercises, with personalized instruction from professors and teaching assistants.

Two-year college students face an obstacle course of personal and academic challenges on the path to a diploma. Many must hold down a job or two while attending courses. The renewed spotlight on community colleges is essential for transforming these vital institutions into gateways to the tech-oriented skills that serve as the foundation for vibrant economies.