Haslam: Remove Higher Education Barriers

By Bill Dries

When Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam outlined an endowment from Tennessee lottery reserve funds to offer two years of community college free to all Tennesseans graduating high school – a plan he presented during his State of the State address Monday, Feb. 3 – it was a concept that had been years in the making.

One of Haslam’s goals – as well as a goal of his predecessor, Gov. Phil Bredesen, and some legislators of both parties – has been a greater role for the state’s community colleges and other two-year institutions.

The centerpiece of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s State of the State address Monday was his plan to offer two free years of tuition to all Tennessee high school graduates.

(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

This past September, state Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis called on Haslam to use the operational reserve lottery fund of more than $400 million to pay for Tennesseans to resume and complete college.

“We do good things with the lottery, but we can do more for other folks,” the Senate Democratic leader told the Frayser Exchange Club. “We’ve got to build the lives of adults. … Everybody needs to drink from the well.”

Kyle paid close attention to Monday’s State of the State address.

“I’m pleased with the proposal,” he said after the address. “What the governor has done is address the issue of the lottery. We’re going to use the lottery for access to higher education.”

Kyle points to a detail that wasn’t in the speech, but in Haslam’s written proposal.

In that proposal, Haslam would cut the HOPE scholarship amount in the first two years at a four-year college by $2,000 per year, but would increase the scholarship amount for the last two years by $2,000 to $5,000.

“What it appears to be to me is something we’ve been working on for the last several years,” Kyle said of the change. “It’s a nationwide concept of trying to direct people into their community colleges because it’s a lot less expensive for people to go to a community college. It’s less expensive for the state and it’s less expensive for them.”

The result is a bigger pipeline with four-year colleges gaining more students who are continuing beyond two years and associate degrees at that level.

Haslam has made upping the percentage of Tennesseans with some kind of associate degree, similar certification or four-year degree a priority of higher education. His goal is 55 percent, compared to the current 35 percent.

He said Monday night that there are barriers, including continued perceptions that it’s not necessary to go beyond a high school diploma.

“We have to change our culture,” Haslam said. “More Tennesseans have to believe that earning a certificate or degree beyond high school is not only possible but necessary. As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible.”

And Haslam said the biggest barrier is cost.

“Of course, if you are going to a community college, you would be going for free,” Kyle said. “And then secondly, in your last two years we’re going from $3,000 to $5,000. So over the course of a four-year scholarship, the student gets the same amount of money.”

Haslam specifically proposed Monday using all but $110 million of the $400 million reserve to create an endowment under the banner of what Haslam called the “Tennessee Promise.”

“The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior,” Haslam said from the well of the state House. “We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.”

And, closer to Kyle’s specific proposal for using the lottery reserve funds, Haslam announced an expansion of the “last dollar” scholarships to cover all adults – no matter their age or whether they qualify for a HOPE lottery scholarship – to attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology free.

Haslam said the endowments are essential to sustaining the programs over multiple budget years.

“The Tennessee Promise can only be a true promise if it is sustainable over time,” he said. “It can’t be based on year-to-year budgets or changing legislatures or new administrations.”

Private nonprofits would help with enrollment of those in the two initiatives under the Tennessee Promise banner, which Haslam said would eliminate administrative fees and channel all of the endowment funding to the students. The nonprofits would also provide mentoring and counseling to the students.

Haslam added that the $110 million left in the lottery reserve is “a healthy amount.”