A new proposal called “Tennessee Promise” would use excess lottery reserve funds to cover a full ride at two-year colleges for any high school graduate in the state of Tennessee.
The proposal is part of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” campaign, which aims to raise the state’s graduation rates from 32 percent, where they currently stand, to 55 percent by 2025. The campaign is an attempt to not only help improve overall job qualifications, but also attract more employers to the state.
The plan has been met with widespread support in the General Assembly.
One important question, however, remains unaddressed: Haslam has not specified exactly how this particular perk will be paid for throughout future years.
Haslan expects the program to cost some $34 million annually. Tennessee’s $300 million excess lottery reserve funds would pay for part of the program, as would a $47 million endowment.
The state has about $400 million in reserves.
Haslam’s fellow Republican leaders expect the bill to pass after adjustments have been made to it. Although Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris did not elaborate as to what kind of changes the bill will see, he did note that lawmakers want to make sure enough funding is available to support the bill.
House speaker Beth Harwell said that lawmakers and the governor’s administration are joined in their collective goal of “having more of our young people prepared for the workforce.”
Because the program applies only to two-year university degree programs, four-year institutions have expressed concern that Tennessee Promise would minimize the amount of first- and second-year students interested in their programs. Similarly, they also worry about the potential loss of resources this program could lead to.
If, after graduation, a student wishes to attend a four-year school, he/she will be able to do so as a junior. This influx of junior-year students at four-year schools could also require additional financial commitment from the state.
“Long-term, that will be an issue if it appears the state is unable to allocate the resources needed to fund the outcomes and the initiatives it requires to improve student retention and graduation rates,” said Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, who oversees more than 30 different colleges and universities.
Thus, as Sean Tierney, strategy associate with the Lumina Foundation, stated, “sustainability of the financial model is always going to be a big question.”
Florida, Mississippi and Oregon are reportedly considering creating similar programs.