Haslam Free Tuition Plan Garners Praise, Concern

On April 7, 2014, in News 2014, by Mark Norris

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, MemphisDailyNews.com
April 7, 2014

NASHVILLE (AP) – Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature proposal this year, a program that would cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate, appears on track to pass as lawmakers enter the waning days of the legislative session. The details, however – including how to pay for this perk in the years to come – remain scattered.

Called “Tennessee Promise,” the plan is a cornerstone of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve the state’s graduation rates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025 to help improve overall job qualifications and attract employers to the state.

After graduation, students who choose to attend a four-year school will be able to do so as juniors. Higher education experts say Florida, Mississippi and Oregon are considering creating similar programs.

Haslam wants to pay for the program, expected to cost about $34 million annually, by using $300 million in excess lottery reserve funds and join it with a $47 million endowment. The state has about $400 million in reserves.

His fellow Republicans who control both chambers say they expect the proposal to pass, after some adjustments. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, didn’t specify what changes would be made to the legislation, but he did say lawmakers want to make sure there’s adequate funding for it.

House Speaker Beth Harwell said lawmakers and the governor’s administration are aiming for the same goal, and that’s “having more of our young people prepared for the workforce.”

Legislators weighing the proposal heard recently from Cody Mitchell, a 22-year-old who earned a degree in business at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville.

“Even at a community college, it’s not cheap. You’ve got all that debt … waiting for you,” he said. “That money can go to a lot of other things.”

Mitchell has paid off his student loans, but he recently testified before a legislative committee that he wouldn’t have had to deal with debt at all if he’d been able to take advantage of a program like the one Haslam wants.

There are concerns from four-year institutions about whether the program will divert students, particularly first- and second-year students, and resources from such schools.

“And just sustainability of the financial model is always going to be a big question,” said Sean Tierney, strategy associate with the Lumina Foundation, a higher education advocacy group.

The program as laid out by Haslam also could bring an annual influx of junior-year students to four-year schools, Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said. That may require additional financial commitment from the state, he said.

“Long-term, that will be an issue if it appears the state is unable to allocate the resources needed to fund the outcomes and the initiatives it requires to improve student retention and graduation rates,” said Morgan, who oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.

There’s also some opposition to a part of the plan that would lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,500 for freshmen and sophomores, but increase it to $4,500 for juniors and seniors.

The move is meant to encourage students to consider going to two-year colleges first.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who as a state lawmaker spearheaded the creation of the state’s lottery scholarships, has said the state should focus on rewarding the highest achieving students “rather than raiding the scholarship fund’s surplus to create a new government program.”

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