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VOL. 7 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 15, 2014

Lottery Champion Cohen Not Pleased With Haslam's ‘Game-Changer’

SAM STOCKARD | The Ledger

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To say Congressman Steve Cohen is unenthusiastic about the Tennessee Promise is an understatement.

“The people who mostly benefit from (Gov. Bill Haslam’s) plan are people who didn’t make the grades in high school and are higher than the average income,” Cohen says.

“That’s not exactly who you should be looking to benefit in society, the low-achievers and the affluent.

COHEN

“I think it’s just a total sham.”

Cohen, a Memphis Democrat who sponsored the lottery amendment in 2002, says Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise for free community college tuition “siphons” money from the Hope Scholarship he helped establish and gives a boost primarily to affluent and low-achieving students.

Cohen contends that, as the Hope Scholarship is diminished, it will be less attractive for keeping students in Tennessee schools.

Statistics show junior-college graduates are less likely to get a four-year degree than those who start at four-year schools out of high school, he says, adding, “You’re not going to get more dreamers and thinkers because you’re killing the four-year plan.”

Cohen also is critical of Haslam for campaigning on Tennessee Promise, which uses Hope Scholarship funds it took him 18 years to set up by passing the constitutional amendment that legalized the lottery in Tennessee.

“It’s really disingenuous for him to go around and say he’s letting people go to college for free when A), it’s not his money. He didn’t raise any money or give any money, and B), he made it more difficult for people at four-year colleges than junior colleges,” Cohen says.

After an October ribbon-cutting ceremony for MTSU’s $147 million science building, Haslam said in response:

“The Tennessee lottery program that Sen. Cohen passed is great, but since we put it in place and gave out about $2 billion in lottery-funded scholarships, we haven’t increased the number of Tennesseans who are going to school.”

If the state is to reach the Drive for 55 – the goal of 55 percent of adults obtaining college degrees or certificates – it must change strategies and reach out to students who originally felt college wouldn’t be part of their future, Haslam said at the ceremony.

The governor argues that most students who participate in Tennessee Promise will be the first ones in their family to attend college.

“I actually think this is a game-changer, and it’s the right way to use that money,” he adds.

Freshmen and sophomores attending four-year schools will receive $500 less in Hope Scholarship funds, $3,500, but juniors and seniors will receive $500 more.

Students who attend community college free for two years will have more money to apply toward their junior and senior years at four-year institutions, Haslam points out.

“This will help more Tennesseans get a college degree. The Hope Scholarship program’s been great, but at the end of the day, more Tennesseans are not going to get a degree than they were before, and we have to address that,” he explains.

Cohen’s office challenges the governor’s statement, pointing to a new study by the Center for American Progress showing that enrollment in Tennessee’s public colleges increased by 22 percent between 2007 and 2012.

It also notes that state funding per student fell by nearly 18 percent, making it more difficult for students to afford to enroll.

Furthermore, it produces data showing average GPAs have increased to 3.43 in 2013 from 3.26 in 2003 and average ACT scores have risen to 22.2 last year from 21.4 in 2003.

The governor’s office, however, contends that while the Hope Scholarship is doing a good job of keeping Tennessee’s brightest students in state, the number of college-going students out of high school dropped to 57 percent in 2013 from 62 percent in 2004 when the Hope Scholarship took effect, based on Tennessee Higher Education Commission figures.

More than 50,000 Tennessee high school students have applied for the Tennessee Promise, but only about 12,000 are expected to ultimately enroll through the program, Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, says.

“We think that 12,000 represents the state really getting an upward, positive trend on college-going (students),” Krause says.

Cohen’s office points out the percentage of students going to college straight out of high school ignores a “significant chunk” of college students, including those who take time off between high school and college and still qualify for the Hope Scholarship.

Cohen further points out that the Tennessee Promise is a “last-dollar scholarship” because it is applied only after federal funds and other scholarships are applied.

He says students who qualify for the Pell Grant – their families must have incomes less than $42,000 – won’t benefit much from the plan, nor will students who excel in high school and attend four-year institutions.

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