During his fourth annual State of the State address Monday before the General Assembly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam introduced the "Tennessee Promise."
The proposal commits to providing on a continuing basis two years of community college or a college of applied technology (TCAT) absolutely free of tuition and fees to graduating high school seniors.
"Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education, and we are raising our expectations as a state," Haslam said. "We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee."
After graduating from a community college, if students choose to attend a four-year school, the state's transfer pathways program makes it possible for those students to start as a junior. By getting their first two years free, the cost of a four-year degree would be cut in half.
"This is a bold promise," Haslam continued. "It is a promise that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers. It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans, and it is a promise that we have the ability to make. Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless."
To make the Tennessee Promise sustainable over time, the governor proposed transferring lottery reserve funds to create an endowment, with the goal of strategically redirecting existing resources. He recommended leaving $110 million in the lottery reserve fund to ensure there is a healthy balance moving forward.
On Tuesday, Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, released a statement expressing strong concerns about Haslam's plan to "raid funds from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship surplus account to create a new government program, disincentivize high-achieving young people from enrolling at 4-year institutions of higher learning, and make it more difficult for Tennessee families to send their children to the best universities and colleges in the state."
"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 that has provided $2.9 billion to Tennessee's best and brightest," said Cohen in the statement. "And while this funding has been critical to helping students attend college and complete 4-year degrees, the HOPE Scholarship has never fully funded college scholarships, as intended, because it has not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of higher education.
"Today's HOPE Scholarships pay a smaller portion of college costs than it did 10 years ago and with Governor Haslam's plan it will provide even smaller scholarships for freshman and sophomores," Cohen said.
Rather than "raiding the scholarship fund's surplus to create a new government program, the funds should be used for what the people of Tennessee voted for," said Cohen, "encouraging Tennessee high school students to work hard and earn a scholarship which will then keep our best and brightest students in Tennessee and providing Tennessee with a highly educated and desirable workforce."
Cohen noted that he had personally expressed to Gov. Haslam that the surplus funds would be better used "by raising the income cap on or raising the amount of Aspire Awards that give middle- and low-income students who work hard extra help to give them a fair shot at success."
The "Tennessee Promise" is part of Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative aimed at increasing the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. In 11 years, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree to get a job. Today, only 32 percent of Tennesseans qualify.