Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam looks at expanding college scholarship options

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam looks at expanding college scholarship options

December 19th, 2012 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he isn't planning any major changes to public colleges and universities, he continues to look at expanding scholarship opportunities and easing the costs for Tennesseans to obtain college degrees.

Meanwhile, the Republican said he remains undecided about whether his office will spearhead an effort by GOP lawmakers to create a school voucher program for K-12 education.

Haslam told reporters during an interview in his Capitol office suite that he may press legislative changes to some scholarship programs but doesn't plan to move on restructuring higher education governing boards.

His major focus, the governor said, is grappling with controlling higher education costs while dealing with huge expected increases in TennCare, the state's Medicaid health care program for low-income children, pregnant women and disabled Tennesseans.

"The big challenge is try to figure out how to control costs, and that's so much related to Medicaid, quite frankly," Haslam said. "And then second, how do we encourage more students to attend and to graduate?"

The governor said "we're looking at everything from broadening the scholarship program we have now, tnAchieves, and helping people go to community colleges free or whether we can make better use of an online education program that might work for some people to continuing what Tennessee started with the Complete College Act."

TNAchieves is a "last dollar" scholarship program and mentoring program designed to provide opportunities for public high school graduates, who can receive up to $3,000 in tuition for community colleges.

The Complete College Act, passed in 2010, was designed to shift financial incentives for public higher education from basic enrollment to actual graduation.

"We could have a couple of components, but it won't be anything that fundamentally addresses governance changes or anything like that," Haslam said.

Haslam over the summer held meetings across the state on how to improve higher education, saying it was "at a crossroads."

The governor was pushing for a more cost-conscious system that also generates higher numbers of graduates in well-paying fields demanded by employers.

Those remain objectives, he said.

That didn't indicate a major overhaul of the governing boards was at hand, Haslam said, noting, "I didn't mean to say we would necessarily have something this year. At some point in time we could."

Haslam called the Complete College Act, which then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and Democratic and Republican lawmakers assembled, a "leader in terms of what states are doing." He said when he began looking at what best practices there were among states, the Complete College Act was often cited.

"Legislation will be introduced," Haslam said. "The decision will be whether it's ours, or whether it'll be that we just advocate a position once the bill is introduced."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has predicted a voucher bill will pass.