Tennessee Promise Bill Uses Lottery Funds to Cover Postsecondary Tuition
Many policymakers and education officials are watching closely as Tennessee rolls out an ambitious plan to provide free postsecondary tuition to the state's high school graduates. As part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative, the newly signed Tennessee Promise bill will provide two years of community college or a college of applied technology at no cost to students. The overall goal is to increase the number of Tennesseans earning a degree or certificate to 55 percent from the current rate of 32 percent.
Last month sponsors Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick paved the way for students to receive their first two years of college free. This week the governor is making seven ceremonial stops to sign the bill. "Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education and we are raising our expectations as a state," Haslam said. "We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee."
In an effort to build a more skilled and educated workforce Gov. Haslam created "Drive to 55" which focuses on higher education and workforce development leading to an increase in job growth and decrease in unemployment in the state. In Tennessee the current college completion rate is 32 percent and the governor wants to increase that number to 55 percent by 2025. Nationally, 41 percent of adults over age 25 have obtained an associate's degree or higher.
No taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the tuition. Excess lottery reserve funds are being tapped to develop an endowment that will sustain the program over time. Haslam plans to redirect approximately $300 million from the lottery's reserves to cover the estimated $34 million annual cost to support the high school graduates.
"This is a bold promise," Haslam said in a recent article. "It is a promise that speaks volumes to current and prospective employers, and it is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans." Students that seek tuition from the program must graduate from high school, agree to partner with a mentor during their time in postsecondary education, complete at least eight hours of community service and maintain a 2.0 GPA during their two year tenure. If they select to further their education, the state's Transfer Pathways program will allow these students to attend a four-year institution beginning with junior status. In essence, by participating in the Promise opportunity, students get their first two years tuition-free providing a four year opportunity at half the cost.