published Sunday, December 20th, 2009

2-year colleges lose out on HOPE

Even with a sweeping plan to overhaul higher education in place, a key element to boost the prominence of the state's community colleges has been left behind, a top aide to Gov. Phil Bredesen said.

The governor planned to recommend an increase in the HOPE scholarship for community college students, but the idea was killed at the last minute because funding isn't available, Will Pinkston said.

"If what we are trying to do as a government is encourage more people to go into the two-year environment, perhaps we need to put incentives in place to better make that happen," said Mr. Pinkston, a senior adviser to the governor. "But that isn't going to happen this year."

Indeed, a new report on lottery revenues given to the State Funding Board on Friday painted a dire picture for future higher education funding, according to a report published in the Commercial Appeal of Memphis. State officials were told that lottery revenue isn't keeping pace with scholarship outlays. Analysts predicted that without action, the lottery's $381 million in reserves could be used up on scholarship costs by 2013 or 2014, the Commercial Appeal reported.

Some educators and state officials have said they hope adding the Mega Millions lottery game will help pump up revenues once more.

But some said the scholarship program, instead of expanding, may have to be significantly changed.

"We have a deficit that is going to continue to widen over time if the program continues to grow," said David Wright, associate executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

He said lottery scholarships might have to be more difficult to earn and keep, award amounts lowered or smaller programs canceled.

The current lottery scholarship, which provides $4,000 for four-year college students and $2,000 for two-year college students, has driven more students to attend universities, Mr. Wright said.

"If in fact we do want to increase the community college award, I think there could be good reasons to do that, but we have to address these fiscal realities," Mr. Wright said.

Gov. Bredesen wants to see changes in higher education in the upcoming legislative special session. His proposals -- to create statewide transfer agreements, eliminate remedial education at four-year schools and establish dual enrollment between community colleges and universities -- are intended to increase the prominence of community colleges and, in turn, improve the state's comparatively poor graduation rate.

Increasing the HOPE scholarship for community college students from $2,000 to $3,000 was a top initiative until only a week ago, when officials said the state Funding Board reported that lottery funds "may be out of balance."

With tuition costs at colleges rising and enrollment growing, the state has had an unexpected surge in expenditures.

"The demand for total dollars has increased," Mr. Pinkston said. "The last I saw the numbers, there was $270 million in revenues against an anticipated $310 million in expenditures. There is still a healthy reserve, so I think all will be well. But now is not the best time to be promoting new initiatives."

The news comes as a blow to community college administrators, who long have complained about the gap between the lottery scholarship payout for four-year and two-year institutions.

"I am disappointed, but I hope the Legislature will give it consideration in any case," Chattanooga State Community College President Jim Catanzaro said. "You can't fund everything. Sometimes you have to reallocate."

Still, with more than 100 lottery-related bills already filed this year, some lawmakers and educators say the idea should resurface.

"If you increase the financial incentives, that is going to bump up the prestige of community colleges and the incentive for people to go there," said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Mr. Pinkston said some people may argue that increasing the HOPE scholarship for community college students would be unfair because the increase would cover all tuition costs for two-year students while the scholarship still would cover only 67 percent for university students.

Providing a free ride to community colleges would encourage people to start off at schools that are a better academic fit and less expensive for the state, some say.

"It is in the best interest of students and certainly the taxpayers for students to come to community college initially," Dr. Catanzaro said. "It is a piece of the fabric that is being recast that will lead to redistribution."

PDF: Senate Bill 146, House Bill 313

PDF: Lottery scholarship program renewal criteria

WHAT'S NEXT

The governor has called a special legislative session Jan. 12 so legislators can consider a number of proposals for k-12 and higher education.

WHAT THE SCHOLARSHIP COVERS

4-year colleges -- $4,000, 67 percent of tuition costs

2-year colleges -- $2,000, 67 percent of tuition costs

What it could cover with an increase to community colleges:

4-year colleges -- $4,000, 67 percent of tuition costs

2-year colleges -- $3,000, 100 percent of tuition costs

THE COST OF COLLEGE

4-year college average -- $5,926 per year for in-state students

2-year college average -- $2,968 per year for in-state students

Source: Tennessee Higher Education Commission

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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