Cohen: TN Promise ‘Robs’ Existing Lottery Scholarships

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; February 23, 2015:

[MEMPHIS, TN] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), who is known across the state for his twenty-year fight to create a state lottery as “The Father of the Tennessee Education Lottery” and because Tennessee Lottery money is the source of the funding for Tennessee Promise has already been dubbed by some as “The Grandfather of the Funding of Tennessee Promise,” released the following statement regarding Governor Bill Haslam’s recent criticisms of America’s College Promise, which is President Obama’s new plan to provide two free years of community college:

“Governor Haslam says he is ‘flattered’ that President Obama used Tennessee Promise as a model for the national America’s College Promise program. But, in reality, the biggest correlation between the two programs is the name.

First, as Governor Haslam acknowledged this week, Tennessee’s program does not come out of the general budget. Instead, Tennessee Promise robs the existing Lottery Scholarship programs. Tennessee Promise takes $500 per year from college students who worked hard in high school to earn the Tennessee HOPE Lottery Scholarship to attend a four-year college or community college. It reduces by $125 per semester the HOPE Access Grants for achieving, low-income students to attend four-year colleges. Tennessee Promise also eliminates future growth of the HOPE Lottery Scholarships.  As a result, the HOPE Lottery Scholarships will now cover less and less of the cost of college as tuition continues to increase. Unlike the Tennessee Promise, the President’s plan would not destroy Pell grants or other current programs designed to provide opportunity to attend college.  America’s College Promise would supplement, not supplant, those programs.

Second, Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” program, which means that it will only cover the cost of tuition and will not provide any financial support for housing, books or school-related expenses. Because it reduces the HOPE Lottery scholarships for students attending community college, some students who earn that scholarship will have less money for non-tuition expenses than they would have had before the enactment of Tennessee Promise. The federal program would allow for students to receive more than the cost of tuition to help cover those extra costs of attending college.

Third, Tennessee Promise will help the wealthier and less-accomplished students attend community college.  The Tennessee Education Lottery already provides scholarships for students who worked hard and achieved in high school to attend 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges and technical schools.  Since the last increase in 2007, the base HOPE Scholarship awards have covered $4,000 at 4-year schools and $1,500 at community colleges.  The Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills grant provide $2,000 for students to attend technical schools, which covers nearly two-thirds the cost of attendance.

Finally, President Obama set reasonable requirements in order to maintain America’s College Promise. Students benefitting from the President’s plan would need to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA in order to remain in the program.  Conversely, Governor Haslam’s plan had no academic standards when he proposed the program and no academic standards when it passed the legislature. Eventually, a 2.0 minimum college GPA requirement was set for the Tennessee Promise program.

Prior to the Governor’s unveiling of the Tennessee Promise program, I spoke and wrote to him suggesting that the income threshold for the HOPE Access grants be raised or that the value of those awards be increased to allow more opportunities for the most disadvantaged.  I remain disappointed that so much of the opportunity for the growth of the HOPE Scholarship programs has been destroyed by Tennessee Promise.

I will be extremely interested to see how Tennessee Promise performs during its first year in effect which begins this fall.  I suspect community college students will receive more financial aid dollars from the HOPE Scholarship program and Pell grants than from the Tennessee Promise program.

I hope that Governor Haslam and the legislature will consider increasing the amount of the HOPE Lottery programs this year, as they have not been raised to compensate for the rise in tuition during the past eight years—and, in fact, were lowered by the passage of Tennessee Promise.”