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VOL. 38 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2014

Haslam's free community college tuition plan actually punishes high achievers

By Zack Barnes

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During the State of the State on Feb. 3, Gov. Haslam laid out his plan for all graduating seniors to attend community college and college of applied technology for free. He called it the Tennessee Promise.

“The Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior,” Haslam said during his annual address. “We will promise that he or she can attend two years of community college or a college of applied technology absolutely free.”

That plan was an immediate hit. Access to higher education is now in the grasp of many students who would not usually have the means to attend. With the rise in satellite campuses for community college and technical centers, many more students can gain access to the training and education they deserve.

The Governor also announced during his speech that Columbia State Community College would be opening up a Williamson County branch. This branch of the school will continue to reach more students. The need for these branches are already great, so I am always excited to see more campuses opening around the state.

When Nashville State Community College opened a campus in Antioch, I was extremely happy. I thought having a campus close to my alma mater, Antioch High School, would limit the excuses of my former classmates about not attending college.

But the excuses kept coming. My friends did not seek higher education. Too many failed to reach their full potential because of lack of education or training.

Now, having a free community college in the heart of Antioch should allow many more students to reach their full potential. I really wish this program could have been around years ago when I finished high school. But the thing is, this program could have been around years earlier.


As the Associate Press noted after the speech, the Gov. Haslam’s plan is very similar to the one made by then-Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen shortly after his re-election.

The Haslam plan is $9 million more than Bredesen’s plan, which failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate after easily passing the House.

Former GOP Sen. Jamie Woodson, who now leads the education nonprofit State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), was the chair of the Education Committee at the time. She killed the amendment for free community college, and it was never heard of again, until a Republican governor resurrected it.

With a Republican supermajority in the General Assembly, the plan to use excess lottery funds to pay for two years of schooling should pass easily. It’s just a shame that politics played a role in the downfall of this bill before, and the more Republican controlled Senate will most likely pass it now.

There are some downsides to this plan. The Hope Scholarship would decrease from $4,000 to $3,000 for freshman and sophomore years at four-year institutions. Juniors and seniors would see their scholarship rise from $4,000 to $5,000. That’s great for the final two years of schooling, but taking away $1,000 a year for the first two years is harmful.

Tuition prices are rising, and the first two years of college is the most important. Lowering the scholarships would hurt families that really need it the most. Community colleges are a great resource for thousands of students across Tennessee but they may not be for everyone. Students who decide to attend a four-year university from the beginning shouldn’t be punished. Students who work hard in high school and are accepted to top-tier state universities should be rewarded.


Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) was the first prominent official to offer concerns about the plan. As a state senator, Cohen sponsored the constitutional amendment to repeal the ban on lotteries.

“Over the last 10 years, the HOPE Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years ago as a state senator to create has been an unparalleled success,” Cohen said in a statement. “But the Governor’s ‘Promise’ actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs. I am extremely concerned and remain cautious about any plan that would make it harder for our state’s proven young people to begin attending the best universities in Tennessee.”

You know who else thinks it’s important to keep the lottery reserve funds? Republicans.

State Sen. Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) wanted to make sure students kept their lottery scholarship for a full eight semesters instead of losing it once students reached 120 hours. His plan failed because other Republicans didn’t want to tap into lottery reserves. His bill failed last year in committee, along party lines, Overbey being the only Republican to vote for it.

State Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson), also the Senate’s speaker pro tem, had this to say at the end of the last legislative session: “The lottery has a finite amount of money,” Watson told TNReport. “The history of lotteries across the country – state lotteries – is they reach a certain point where they don’t grow a lot and they don’t shrink a lot, and one of my concerns is that, when we put new ideas forward that we have to fund out of the lottery, that we may in the long run damage the sustainability of the lottery.”

Watson spoke out against a plan that would cost the state less than $6 million a year from the lottery account. What will he say to a program that costs $34 million a year? Will the Republicans who voted against Overbey’s bill vote against the Governor’s plan?

The Tennessee Promise has both the good and the bad, and I hope the General Assembly will thoroughly debate this bill. The supermajority is known for rushing bills through so quickly that sometimes its own members complain about the pace.

The General Assembly needs to know this bill will have everlasting effects on the people of Tennessee, both good and bad. I hope they take the time to address those effects.

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