The legislator who pushed and finally won passage of the Tennessee Lottery a decade ago doesn’t like the plan by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to use most of the lottery reserve for an endowment to offer two years of community college free to every Tennessee high school graduate.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, specifically has a problem with the part of the Tennessee Promise plan that would cut the amount of money the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship would pay for the first two years of college. Haslam’s proposal would cut that amount by $2,000 but then increase the amount the HOPE scholarships pay for the third and fourth years of college by $2,000 a year.
“I am extremely concerned and remain cautious about any plan that would make it harder for our state’s proven young people to begin attending the best universities in Tennessee,” Cohen said in a written statement. “Or any plan that places additional financial burden on schools like the University of Memphis, which are already struggling to keep costs down and provide high quality educations.”
Cohen proposed and pushed for passage of the state lottery law including the establishment of the HOPE scholarships as a Tennessee state senator.
And since leaving Nashville for Washington, Cohen hasn’t hesitated to express his opinions about changes to the lottery and the scholarships.
Haslam made the Tennessee Promise the centerpiece of his State of the State address Monday. He also said the state still has to sell many Tennesseans on the necessity of some college or training after high school graduation to fill new manufacturing jobs Haslam has made the priority of his economic development efforts.
To do that, Haslam is making the offer of free community college for two years and lowering the amount of HOPE scholarships in those first two years of college at four-year institutions.
Cohen sees it as “raiding the scholarship fund’s surplus to create a new government program.”
Instead, Cohen said he’s told Haslam the surplus should be used to either raise the income cap for eligibility for the scholarships or to raise the Aspire Awards funded by the lottery that go to low- and middle-income students.
State Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, meanwhile, has said he is “pleased” with the proposal. And Kyle does not think the emphasis on community colleges comes at the expense of four-year colleges and universities.
“We’re leveraging our assets to get a bigger bang for the buck,” Kyle said. “We’ve got to get a bigger pipeline for students. By creating a free community college in West Tennessee, we have the opportunity to really build a pipeline of schools that will add students.”
He thinks students who start in community college will continue on to the University of Memphis.
Interim University of Memphis President Brad Martin has also identified helping students continue and complete their four-year degrees as a priority of his administration. The effort applies to students coming out of community colleges as well as those who dropped out.
“We’re identifying those students,” Martin said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines” before Haslam unveiled the Tennessee Promise proposal. “We are inviting them back. We are giving them support to find the right path. And we are helping them to finish.”