Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan moving through state legislation

As of 2013, only 32 percent of Tennesseans hold a college degree. Governor Bill Haslam proposed Tennessee Promise, a program designed to enable high school graduates to attend a community college for free, as a part of his Drive to 55 plan. This program would help further aid the Drive to 55 plan, which aims for 55 percent of Tennesseans to hold a degree by the year 2025.

The Tennessee Promise plan would cost taxpayers nothing. Haslam plans to move $300 million from the Tennessee Education Lottery (Hope Scholarship) reserve funds and establish an endowment. This would leave over $110 million in the reserves. This endowment “would go to pay any tuition and fees remaining after federal, state and institutional aid have been applied,” Haslam explained at a House committee hearing held in March.

By redistributing the Tennessee Hope Scholarship, the state’s largest merit-based program, community college students would receive $3,000 per year, versus the previous $2,000 per year. While the average cost for community college is $3,787, few of Haslam’s last dollar scholarship would be needed as scholarships like the Pell grant and Aspire Award cover a portion of tuition. Some stipulations for receiving money from Haslam’s Tennessee Promise would include community service hours, working with a mentor and keeping a steady 2.0 GPA. It is estimated that 25,000 students would take advantage of this program.
However, not all Tennessee colleges are prepared to adopt this new proposal.

Colleges belonging to the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association are apprehensive about how Haslam’s Tennessee Promise will not only affect their incoming freshman classes, but how the decrease in Hope Scholarship aid will affect tuition prices.

“If Tennessee Promise is enacted, students attending a TICUA member college or private university, such as Maryville College, would lose around $7.7 million in scholarship aid,” TICUA president Claude Pressnell said.

Although community colleges make up 16 percent of degrees awarded in Tennessee, TICUA colleges and universities enroll 26 percent of all students, award 36 percent of bachelor degrees, 47 percent of master degrees, 51 percent of professional degrees and 43 percent of doctorate degrees.

In disagreement with how Tennessee Promise could affect not only the incoming class but tuition rates at their four-year institutions, several private colleges and other members of the TICUA offered their own amendment to fund Haslam’s program, as proposed in a press release from Pressnell.

The TICUA focuses on the precedent of the Aspire Award, a scholarship granted to low-income students in combination with the popular Hope Scholarship. Under the plan, the Aspire Award would be withheld from community college students, as they would have enough of their tuition covered by federal and institutional aid, including $5,000 of Pell grants. However, with this proposal, the amount of the Aspire Award for students attending four-year institutions would be lowered from $1,500 to $1,000 to $500.

Another facet of Haslam’s plan that affects students at four-year institutions proposes to give students $3,000 during the first two years and $5,000 in the last two years. However, TICUA proposes that their plan will enable the Hope Scholarship to remain at $4,000 per year.

Knoxville News Sentinel released a chart that showed during the 2013 academic year, 43,692 students across the state of Tennessee were Hope Scholarship recipients. 19,543 received the Aspire Award. At Maryville College, more than half of the 1,168 students receive the Hope Scholarship. While MC’s focus to ensure student completion, the overall concern is how Haslam’s Tennessee Promise will affect the idea of starting out one’s college career at a four-year institution.

“We are a strongly diverse college, there is unity in diversity,” Maryville College President Tom Bogart said on how Haslam’s proposal might deter students from applying to a four-year institution like Maryville College.

However, officials at the Tennessee Board of Regents who preside over the state’s community colleges released in a press statement that they are concerned that omitting the Aspire Award would hurt struggling students.

Other states such as Mississippi, Oregon and California have already enacted a plan much like Haslam’s Tennessee Promise in order to provide a free community college education for students fresh out of high school.

For those representing the TICUA, the complication is not whether Haslam’s Tennessee Promise is a good notion when it comes to educating the people of state, it’s how to make amendments to his proposal that will benefit both the Tennessee Board of Regents regulated community colleges and those represented by the TICUA.

Legislation to create Haslam’s Tennessee Promise plan is still moving through the state House and Senate.

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