A pledge Gov. Bill Haslam made earlier this year to offer free community college or associate’s degree-equivalent education opportunities to every student in Tennessee who graduates high school has won the General Assembly’s backing.
On an 87-8 vote Tuesday night, the House of Representatives approved the “Tennessee Promise,” a lottery-reserves funded initiative Haslam first floated back in February during his state-of-the-state address.
The new program is designed both to augment the rising cost of a college education for Tennesseans, and at the same time get more high-school graduates into college and post-secondary career-training programs. The Senate passed the legislation 30-1 on Monday, with only Hohenwald Republican Joey Hensley opposed.
The Tennessee Promise is linked with the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative that’s aiming at increasing the number of graduating seniors who go on to earn a post-secondary degree of some sort. Currently, the percentage is around 32 but Haslam wants to see it get to 55 in the next decade.
The finding source for the new scholarship program will be a lottery-reserves funded endowment that’ll be overseen by the state treasurer, the state funding board and the chairs of both the House and Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committees. The “Tennessee Promise” program will be administered by the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick presented Haslam’s Tennessee Promise to the lower chamber Tuesday evening. He said the point of idea is “to increase enrollment and increase success after enrollment.”
Estimates are that 12,000-13,000 students “will apply and meet the requirements in the first year” of the Tennessee Promise’s existence, said McCormick. In the second year they are hoping for 25,000 or more, he said.
McCormick also said the Tennessee Promise is not “just another entitlement program.” The Chattanooga Republican said there are clear provisions within it requiring students who access the scholarships to perform academically, volunteer for community service and secure other sources of financing for their education.
“It is important to note that the scholarship does not cover the full cost of books, supplies, room and board, transportation and personal expenses…it’s just for tuition in fees,” said McCormick. “So the student does have a financial interest and is expected to contribute to it.” He added that the scholarship will go directly to the institution and not the student.
All eight House lawmakers who voted against the bill were Republicans, including GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada and Lascassas Republican Joe Carr, who is challenging Lamar Alexander in this year’s GOP primary race for U.S. Senate.
Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, who voted against the legislation, said that he indeed does regard the “Tennessee Promise” as simply new entitlement program.
“This is one of the things that we talk about all the time, we blame Washington all the time for creating new entitlements, new entitlements, new entitlements,” he said. “And that is what we are doing with this particular piece of legislation.”
Holt said he also worries the ultimate consequence of channeling more government funding toward post-secondary institutions is “we’re further distorting the education market.”
McCormick said he, too, is concerned that the cost of a college education keeps rising and doesn’t want to do anything to exacerbate that problem.
“I would say that tuition has gone up in states that have similar programs — ones that don’t lotteries, ones that don;t have lotteries — and I think that it is our job to keep a closer eye on it,” he said. “And we are going to have to keep doing that. That is a legitimate point and we need to work hard on that.”