With summer winding down and school kicking off, Gov. Bill Haslam is on a statewide tour promoting the benefits of higher education to seniors who’ll graduate high school this year.
This week Haslam is traveling the Volunteer State pitching his “Tennessee Promise,” a new program offering two years of community college or technical school free to any student interested. The governor says the initiative, which the state Legislature overwhelmingly OK’d last spring, is unique to Tennessee.
“Every Tennessean, if you graduate from high school, we will ensure that you can go to community college for two years — or to technology school — absolutely free of tuition and fees,” Haslam told a gymnasium packed with students at Red Bank High School near Chattanooga Tuesday.
This year’s deadline for sign-up is Nov. 1, Haslam said. The governor told reporters after the event that he’s still running into high school seniors who’re unaware the program exists, which is one of the reasons he’s out talking it up.
The Tennessee Promise is part of Haslam’s “Drive t0 55” initiative, which aims to increase the number of high school grads in the state with some form of higher education certificate to 55 percent — the percentage of jobs in the state that will require some sort of degree in about 10 years. Currently the number of degree-holding Tennesseans is at 32 percent, Haslam said.
“We’re trying to increase the whole spectrum of qualified candidates in the workforce in Tennessee,” he said.
The governor said big companies like Volkswagen and mom-and-pop shops alike have shared similar concerns with him about Tennessee — namely, that the Volunteer State needs to do a better job prepping skilled laborers for the job market.
Haslam noted to the students, though, that even though the two years of school they’re being offered is “free” to them financially, they’re going to be expected to produce results.
“Your obligation is to complete high school, fill out the financial aid forms, work with a mentor — which we will provide you, who will help you with all of that — and then perform eight hours of community service,” Haslam said.
According to the program’s website, Tennessee Promise is a “last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will cover college costs not met from Pell, HOPE, or TSAA.”
The money to fund the “last-dollar” program came from reserve funds from the Tennessee Lottery, initially created for the HOPE Scholarship, which was aimed at high-achieving students.
“It was helping some students, but not enough to where we could get to a larger percentage of Tennesseans having a degree,” Haslam said after the event. “So, we took some reserve money that had built up in the lottery fund, and used that to form an endowment. So, this is a promise, the money’s not going to go away, we’re only spending the interest off of that endowment.”
When the free tuition plan was announced earlier this year, there were some concerns that it could hurt four-year higher education institutions. However, Haslam said he’s confident the program will “increasing the size of the funnel opening” for kids to go to school.
More young adults headed to post-secondary institutes means more graduates, which translates to a better-skilled and better-educated workforce that’ll be more attractive to companies thinking about moving here, he said.
Haslam added that the trend he expected to see is students going to a community college for two years, and then continuing on to a four-year school.
Tennessee House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican and the sponsor of the legislation in the General Assembly’s lower chamber, told reporters after the event that the Tennessee Promise “is going to be the highlight of the governor’s first term,” and that he hopes to see it built-on over the next four years.
“It was the most important bill I believe I’ve ever moved,” McCormick said.