The “Tennessee Promise”: Real Reform or Empty Diversion?

As graduation season comes to an end, our thoughts return back to Republican Governor Haslam’s 2014 State of the State Address announcing a plan to provide two years of free community college and vocational school to all Tennesseans:  

This isn’t just about higher education — it’s about better jobs for more Tennesseans. It’s about building a stronger economy. . . . As we urge more Tennesseans to continue their education, we know we have to remove as many barriers as possible. For many Tennessee families, cost is the biggest hurdle to further education. That’s why tonight I am really excited to announce the “Tennessee Promise.” 

In order to participate in the Tennessee Promise, students would first have to apply for federal student aid, need-based, or merit scholarships. Tennessee would then pay the cost of tuition and fees not covered by other student aid. Similar to tnAchieves, the Tennessee Promise would place requirements on students, such as full-time college enrollment, maintenance of a 2.0 grade-point average, and completion of eight hours of community service per semester.

According to its architects, Tennessee Promise would be the only program of its kind and a revolutionary way of thinking about student loans and the societal promise that an educated and employed citizen is a responsibility of the state. The program beckons back to pre-millennium years when California and New York provided tuition-free community or city colleges to in-state students. However, after integration in New York spiked student enrollment, and funding cuts in California following property tax reductions, both states ceased to offer these programs. 

Tennessee plans to avoid these budgetary pitfalls by depending not on property taxes but instead on lottery revenues for funding. Several states, including Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, use lottery money to provide college scholarships based on academic merit. Tennessee already offers merit-based scholarships, called Hope Scholarships, but the Tennessee Promise is for all students regardless of academic standing to attend community and technical colleges free of charge.

The announcement of the Tennessee Promise reflects the heightened interest of state leaders around the country in keeping college affordable and boosting the number of college graduates. Republican governors in Florida and Texas have attempted to reduce the cost of 4-year state schools to $10,000, by employing advances in technology such as online learning. However, the projects have not drastically changed degree programs and most students in both states already end up paying less than $10,000 for such degrees with careful planning in high school and federal or state aid already in existence.

Another pilot program passed in Oregon, called Pay It Forward, Pay it Back, also avoids the use of property tax for funding. Unlike in Tennessee, tuition would ultimately not be free for students. Instead students would pay no tuition upfront, but pay a small percentage of their income for the next 20 years to "pay forward" the cost of instruction for the next generation of students.

Some argue the Tennessee Promise is far from perfect. The plan calls for reducing Hope Scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee's four-year universities from $4,000 to $3,000. Tennessee democrat Rep. Steve Cohen, who was instrumental in developing the state's Hope Scholarship program, argued the governor's plan could discourage enrollment from the state's top universities. "Over the last 10 years, the Hope Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a state senator to create has been an unparalleled success," Cohen said. "But the governor's 'promise' actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs."

Others raise concerns about the longevity of the “Tennessee Promise” given that Governor Haslam is up for reelection this year and arguing that the program’s dependence on lottery funds is unsustainable. The program also would not apply to working adults.

“Tennessee Promise” is worth watching, but we also must not take our eyes off increasing graduation rates from four-year institutions and perhaps, most important, increasing high school graduation rates, and decreasing higher education costs across the board.

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