Cohen: TN Promise won’t work

Congressman Steve Cohen, credited with a major role in launching Tennessee’s lottery as a state senator, says in a Tennessean op-ed piece that Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise” is a well-intentioned plan, but won’s work.

According to recently published data, the highest four-year graduation rate at a community college in Tennessee, at Pellissippi State in Knoxville, is only 22 percent.

The statewide average graduation rate at community colleges is an alarming 13 percent, with some graduating only 6 percent of their students.

Despite these abysmal numbers, Governor Haslam created the Tennessee Promise program, which will funnel students and resources away from four-year colleges and universities and into community colleges using HOPE Lottery Scholarship money that was intended to keep the best and brightest students in Tennessee.

…given the low graduation rates, it seems obvious that we are not going to get more graduates simply by putting more students in our struggling community colleges.

Tennessee Promise will drastically reduce the reserves for the HOPE Lottery Scholarships and take any other excess from the HOPE program, which will make any increase to those scholarships impossible.

Promise also reduces the amount of HOPE Lottery Scholarships to freshmen and sophomores at four-year colleges by $500. Given the state’s stagnation in higher education spending and its reliance on sales tax for funding government services—perpetuated further by the passage of the constitutional amendment banning an income tax—tuition will continue rise.

The purchasing power of the HOPE Lottery scholarships, which were intended to cover full tuition but now cover approximately half, will continue to decrease, becoming more of a stipend.

Rather than directing students to low-performing community colleges, Governor Haslam could have directed the money toward scholarships for promising and accomplished students. I urged him to use the money to increase the lottery-funded ASPIRE grants, which currently provide up to an additional $2,250 per year to students whose family income is less than $36,000.

He could also have raised the income level for the ASPIRE grants so that more middle-income students could benefit. Helping students who have achieved in high school and equaled or exceeded the lottery scholarship criteria is the best bang for the buck for keeping bright students in state and getting them to graduate.