Tennessee Promise awaiting signature
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG  Banner Staff Writer
May 02, 2014 | 1274 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print

State legislators’ decision to approve the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act still awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s final signature, but the president of Cleveland State Community College is already looking at ways to ensure the college is ready for it to take effect.

Tennessee Promise, which Haslam proposed during his “State of the State” address on Feb. 3, would provide extra state funding for college tuition as part of the state’s “Drive to 55” initiative to ensure 55 percent of Tennesseans have college degrees by 2025.

The act will allow seniors graduating from public high schools or home-school programs to receive “last dollar funding” at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or the 27 colleges of applied technology, a plan that could mean some students do not have to pay any out-of-pocket costs for tuition.

“I think we are confident this will become law,” Cleveland State President Dr. Bill Seymour said. “It’s a good thing to have happen.”

The proposal, modeled after the existing program Tennessee Achieves, would extend the benefits statewide.

Like in the Achieves program, Tennessee Promise participants would be required to work with an assigned mentor to navigate the college process, attend orientation meetings, perform eight hours of community service a semester, be a full-time student and maintain “satisfactory academic process,” per each college’s definition.

The program is estimated to cost $34 million annually, according to the “Drive to 55” website. To fund the program, Haslam proposed setting up an endowment that would have lottery reserve funds transferred to it, a measure that was included in the pair of state House and Senate bills — HB 2491 and SB 2471. The Senate bill was approved Monday and the House one on Tuesday.

Under Tennessee Promise, the Tennessee Hope scholarship amount for students of two-year colleges will increase from $2,000 a year to $3,000.

While he said the college is still awaiting more specific information about how to implement the program, Seymour said he is in the process of choosing college faculty and staff to serve on an “implementation team” to do research and speak with local schools so they can “have some sense of the magnitude.” 

The changes the college will have to make — if any — depend on the number of new students the program will attract.

Seymour said he expects colleges in parts of the state that did not have access to the Tennessee Achieves program are the ones which will likely see the biggest impacts.

It will be important for the college to educate potential students on what Tennessee Promise makes available to them and to develop a plan to take into the account the possibility of an increase in the number of students, he said.

“We may need to add some faculty or staff, if that’s the case,” Seymour said.

He added the campus itself is “in good shape” to handle a larger student body, and any space-related changes that will be made will likely be with schedules and class sizes.

Seymour said he believes the “implementation team” will likely end up deciding to see changes are made to the programming the college offers rather than to its infrastructure.

Since the focus of Tennessee Promise is on young students fresh out of high school, he said “there probably is going to be a greater need to support older students” on a campus that is currently “very diverse” in terms of student ages.

While the proposal was championed by community college officials like Seymour from the start, a provision set to lessen the dollars amounts of the Tennessee Hope scholarships students could receive has drawn ire from presidents of four-year colleges.

Dr. Paul Conn, the president of Lee University, said shortly after Haslam’s announcement that, while he liked the idea of more students being able to attend college, he disliked how it would impact students who choose to attend four-year institutions.

“We — private colleges — pushed back on that,” Conn said recently.

As introduced, Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act could have decreased the amount of Tennessee Hope scholarship money four-year college students could have received from $4,000 a year to $3,000 during their freshman and sophomore years. After that, the amount would have increased to $5,000 a year for the junior and senior years.

While the change was not set to decrease the overall Tennessee Hope scholarship amount students receive, Conn said he worried it would hurt four-year college students who wanted to begin studying there as freshmen.

However, the bills that were eventually passed during the recent General Assembly included amendments that redistributed the Tennessee Hope scholarship amounts four-year college students can receive.

Legislators increased the amount of money freshman and sophomores at four-year colleges would receive to $3,500 a year. That was done by in turn decreasing the amounts students could receive as juniors and seniors. Instead of being able to get $5,000 in scholarships for those two years, those students would have been eligible for $4,500.

Section 12 of Amendment 5, which was passed as part of the Senate bill on April 14, “revises the Hope scholarship amounts for full-time attendance at a four-year institution to be $1,750 per semester.”

“This award amount will apply to each entering freshman in the fall term of 2015, and thereafter, and will continue through the final semester of such student's sophomore year,” it reads. “The award amount will increase to $2,250 per semester beginning in the student's junior year, as determined by the postsecondary institution attended, and will continue until the student is no longer eligible for a Tennessee Hope scholarship.”

Conn described the amendment as a “compromise” that was needed because Tennessee Promise helping students of two-year colleges “shouldn’t be on the backs of four-year students.” 

“I hope that Governor Haslam will stay focused on access to higher education,” Conn said. “Community colleges have an important role to play. ... But I hope his attention will pivot to the wonderful job private colleges are doing.” 

If approved by the governor, who proposed the plan in the first place, Tennessee Promise will take effect in the summer of 2015. While it is not immediately clear how Tennessee Promise will impact all students’ finances or even the finances of the colleges, Seymour said it presents “positive challenges” for colleges rather than negative ones.

Seymour said it will likely lead to more students pursuing college educations overall, though many might choose to begin at community colleges and later transfer to four-year colleges, rather than going the traditional four-year college route.