By Tom Humphrey
All Tennessee high school graduates could attend two years at a community college free under a proposal presented to the Legislature on Monday by Gov. Bill Haslam in his fourth annual State of the State address.
Haslam christened the proposal as "Tennessee Promise" and said it would operate at no direct expense to taxpayers. About $302 million would be transferred out of Tennessee Education Lottery reserve funds to create an endowment, which would then be used to pay tuition and fees for students enrolling in the program.
"The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student -- from every kindergartner to every high school senior," said Haslam in his prepared remarks. "We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.
"If students then choose to go on to a four-year school, our 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 is cut in half," he said.
"Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors," he said. "We are also proposing last dollar scholarships for all adults -- regardless of age or previous qualification for a HOPE scholarship -- to attend our TCATs free of charge."
The governor said there would still be $110 million remaining in the lottery reserves, which he believes is "a healthy amount." "Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless," Haslam said.
There would also be some changes in the current lottery scholarships that provide up to $4,000 per year for tuition at four-year colleges and universities. The maximum scholarship for a student attending a four-year institution would be $3,000 for the first two years, but increase to $5,000 for the second two years. Beyond the "Tennessee Promise," the governor's budget picture is not as bright for higher education. The University of Tennessee will get no funding for new capitol projects, though the Board of Regents system would receive funding for two new buildings at community college campuses in Middle Tennessee.
And operating funds for higher education are not increased -- a situation that could lead to tuition increases in the coming year. The governor since 2012 has been promoting the idea of expanding the number of Tennesseans with some sort of college degree to 55 percent by 2025 under the theme of "Drive to 55." Currently, only about 32 percent of Tennesseans have a college background.
Haslam said the "Tennessee Promise" will "speak volumes to current and prospective employers" and "make a real different for generations of Tennesseans.
His budget proposal for the coming fiscal year includes some other "Drive to 55" expansions:
- A program intended to eliminate the need for students entering college to take remedial math courses will get an extra $2.6 million in funding for expansion. The program is called Seamless Alignment of Integrated Learning (SAILS).
- Allowing high school students to take one college course as "dual enrollment" at no cost.
- Providing $10 million in "workforce alignment grants" to communities that develop a plan to tie educational institutions with companies that will provide jobs to graduating students with training in the employer's preferred area.
- Creation of an "adult data system," costing $300,000, that would help colleges and universities find and recruit adults who may be likely to return to college and complete their degree.
- Naming a "director of workforce alignment" who will work to place students in programs that prospective employers prefer for graduates.