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

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

February 5th, 2014 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

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.