Community College Looking More Attractive Than Universities Thanks To Haslam’s Proposal

Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd volunteered to oversee new higher education efforts for Governor Bill Haslam. At Monday night's State of the State Address, he was recognized as the man in charge of the "Drive to 55," an effort to get 55 percent of Tennesseans to have at least a two-year degree. The figure is currently 32 percent. Credit: TN Photo Services

Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd volunteered to oversee new higher education efforts for Governor Bill Haslam. At Monday night’s State of the State Address, he was recognized as the man in charge of the “Drive to 55,” an effort to get 55 percent of Tennesseans to have at least a two-year degree. The figure is currently 32 percent. Credit: TN Photo Services

Alexis Frierson got a call from her grandmother the morning after Governor Bill Haslam’s State of the State address. Tennessee’s chief executive had unveiled plans to pay for any graduate to go to community college. And that may tip the scales for Frierson – from going to the University of Memphis to staying close to home.

“That’s just not what my mind is set on, going to a two-year school and then transferring,” Frierson says.

Governor Haslam’s proposal – called “Tennessee Promise” -  would spend more lottery money on community college scholarships. But it also changes the four-year HOPE scholarship. Freshmen and sophomores would have their tuition aid slashed by $1,000 a year. The scholarship amounts would be effectively back-loaded for the junior and senior years as a way to incentivize completion.

The change feels like a cut to Frierson, who is a senior at Nashville’s Hunters Lane High School. And while the price tag has been dropped to practically zero for community college, she says it feels like lowering the bar compared to the university experience.

“You can focus more because you’re actually on campus and involved in student life,” she says. “Whereas a community college, you’re still kinda like high school. You wake up, go to class, go home.”

The Haslam Administration has argued that at least with a two-year school, students would have an associate’s degree if they didn’t end up completing a bachelor’s. Secondly, Haslam has pointed out that 70 percent of the state’s high school graduates require remedial work in math or English.

But Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen says the plan to reduce scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at four-year schools is “a mistake” that hurts the top students it’s supposed to help.

“Those are your best students, your prized ones,” Cohen tells WPLN. “Cutting them by a thousand—that means they’re less likely to be able to afford college, more likely to have to have a second job and more likely to go into debt, which we’re trying to avoid.”

However, backers say the shift will encourage more students to stay in college and graduate.

Thousands never finish degrees they start with lottery dollars, so it would save the state lots of money.  Several lawmakers also say it would steer others into community college, where they argue many are more likely to earn a degree.

“In too many instances, students either graduate from high school and are not adequately prepared for a four-year institution. Or they just decide not to go at all, because it’s not for them,” says Sen. Mark Norris (R-Memphis). “We’re trying to attract that segment of the student population that right now is just giving up on their education because they don’t think they can handle it.”

Daniel Potter contributed reporting from the state capitol.

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