published Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Haslam and hope: Is free two-year college plan boon or boondoggle?

Gov. Bill Haslam is reinventing the Tennessee college scholarship playing field.

In his final State of the State address before seeking re-election this fall, Haslam unveiled a plan to provide two years of free college classes to any high school graduate willing to attend community colleges and technology centers.

The governor says the state can pay for this with no new money: His plan is to re-parcel $300 million in Hope Scholarship money raised by the Tennessee Lottery. The lottery currently has about $410 million in a reserve fund, but only $110 is needed in reserve to pay out Hope scholarships in the future.

The governor also wants to incentivize higher education graduations instead of enrollments (42 percent of Hope students eventually lost their scholarships by failing to meet benchmarks for cumulative grade point averages between 2003 and 2006), so his plan would reduce scholarships for incoming students at four-year universities from $4,000 to $3,000. Juniors and seniors, however, would see their scholarships rise to $5,000.

Haslam's reasoning is that this is a way to help him and the state meet his Drive to 55 goal -- the effort to make Tennesseans prepared for tomorrow's jobs. In 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree beyond high school to get a job. Right now only 32 percent of Tennesseans have those qualifications.

"Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless," the governor said.

But what Haslam has dubbed the "Tennessee Promise" -- though marked with holes and questions -- has much more potential "promise" even than that. It has the potential to help Tennessee close its culture, education and equality gap.

This Republican governor had better be careful. Right-wingers will be labeling him a socialist. Isn't free college for two years to every high school graduate something akin to an entitlement?

On the other hand moderates and progressives won't all be deliriously happy with Haslam either -- especially those who dangled the carrot of Hope Scholarships over their children's heads to elicit good grades. Now those good grades are no longer all-important since any high school graduate could go to a community college free.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said taking money from the first two years of four-year Hope Scholarship awards and giving it to the two-year colleges could attract opposition, but he predicted it would not deter students from enrolling at four-year schools.

"I think they can come up with that money if they want to," Ramsey told reporters in Nashville on Monday.

What does seem frighteningly absent from the plan right now is anything that looks like assurance of learning outcomes.

While Drive to 55 demands degrees or certificates that certainly will serve as one statistic of Haslam's accomplishment, what is to keep the junior colleges from becoming simple diploma and certificate mills?

And what would be left to incentivize parents and high school students to strive for that all-important B average -- especially now that they get $1,000 less for those first two university years? And what about the state's promises already made to them?

Worst-case scenario: Might the real effect be that Tennessee's K-12 school system will just be expanded to a de facto K-14 system?

These are interesting details to be debated and tweaked in coming months as lawmakers and higher education institutions line up and choose sides.

But one thing is certain. Talk in Tennessee about education just got a lot more lively, and the possibility for changing this state's culture -- really changing it -- is intoxicating.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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aae1049 said...

The drop rate in Hamilton County schools is what average maybe 24 to 26 percent. This group without high school diploma is very concerning. They are the most likely to live in poverty and be part of the working poor. Conservatives love the idea of incentivizing graduation, rather than entrance into college. Working from the real problem up makes sense. R's get A plus on this plan.

February 5, 2014 at 12:26 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

aae is right, the drop out rate in secondary schools is both a symptom and a challenge for our society. But the often overlooked problem with the required "B" average and Hope Scholarships is that college ought to be a demanding process that places value of both intelligence to comprehend and master the content AND to find the self-initiative to do it. Those are the hallmarks of a good employee and leader. Everybody can't do it.

If the collegiate standards are kept high and the required "B" average kept in place, we would not begin to have shortfalls in the Hope program and more money could go to improving secondary education, AND our in-state university system.

February 5, 2014 at 8:19 a.m.
soakya said...

If we haven't figured out by now when politicians want to give away money its to secure votes we are in deep. There is enough incentives in place to get any motivated kid in college that's wants to be in college.

Hope Scholarship, Pell Grant, American Opportunity Credit, Life Time Learning Credit, Education deduction, federally subsidized loans, student interest loan deduction, and private scholarships and the answer is to throw more money at students to get them in college. If a student isn't motivated enough to go to college with all these incentives then the students that will take advantage of this new incentive probably doesn't need to be in school. Once again government has created the problem and government is the one with the solution to the problem they created.

If we want to be an entitlement nation then eliminate the income limits on those eligible to take the American Opportunity Credit and expand the credit to cover more than 100% of the first $2000 and 25% of the next $2000.. And make it a fully refundable credit The current limits generally cover one semester at a community college, raise the amount available for the credit to at least $5000 so both semesters are covered at a community college. If a student wants to attend a 4 year college raise the credit amount to cover it.

Its a boondoggle.

February 5, 2014 at 9:53 a.m.
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