Haslam's free community college program moves in Senate

photo Bill Haslam
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's "Tennessee Promise" plan offering a free community college program for all high school graduates cleared a major Senate panel today.

Senate Education Committee members approved the measure, which Haslam has had to change in response to concerns from universities and others, on an 8-1 vote. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was among those voting yes.

The same compromise was approved Tuesday in the House Education Committee.

The proposal would provide free tuition to two-year schools for any high school graduate. Doing that is estimated to cost $34 million per year. The program also will utilize mentors to help students.

Money would come from an interest stemming from a to-be-created special account utilizing Tennessee Lottery scholarship funds. That's caused consternation in higher education circles because Haslam wanted to the amount of lottery-funded HOPE scholarships to four-year institutions in students' first two years.

Initially, the bill sought to lower the current $4,000 lottery scholarship amount at four-year colleges to $3,000 for freshmen and sophomores. But it would increase it to $5,000 for juniors and seniors.

The compromise makes the amount $3,500 for freshman and sophomores, and $4,500 for juniors and seniors.

Haslam is pushing for the legislation as a way to fuel his "Drive to 55. That's a plan bring the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certifications to 55 percent by the year 2025.

Tennessee is far below the national average for higher education,ranking 43rd in working adults with only 32 percent of residents holding a two-year degree or higher.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a former state senator who spearheaded the decades-long drive to get a state lottery for higher education, has lambasted Haslam's initiative. Current lottery-funded HOPE scholarships are awarded to students with at least a 3.0 average in high school or 21 ACT college entrance exam.

The Tennessee Promise program has no such academic requirement. Cohen said the HOPE scholarships' value "has diminished as tuition has increased-and this plan will cut them even further. All future lottery revenue gains will flow to the Governor's free-tuition, no-standards community college program, and the HOPE Scholarship will fade into irrelevance when it should be growing to match the rising costs of attending college."

Haslam's bill would put $300 million from the lottery fund into a special account and the administration intends to use interest proceeds and leave the principal alone.