Congressman Steve Cohen

Representing the 9th District of Tennessee

Memphis Daily News: Tennessee Promise Draws Criticism Amid Rising Tuition

October 27, 2016
In The News

MTSU student Emily Webb cobbled together enough money to pay for her first year and a half of expenses. 

But in the last year she had to borrow $5,000 to keep alive her dream of earning a degree from Middle Tennessee State University as tuition and living costs have increased each year.

As a first-generation college student, the McGavock High School graduate from Nashville found it challenging enough to apply for scholarships through the FAFSA process required to apply for Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship and any other available financial aid. 

Even after receiving the money made available through the state’s lottery, she lacked the funds to pay for the rest of her tuition, housing, meals, books and living expenses, which is edging up to about $15,000 a year.

Webb, 20, a junior majoring in global studies and minoring in international relations, was fortunate enough to land a Dream Scholarship to cover the rest of her expenses early on.

When the money started drying up, she had to borrow, even though as vice president of marketing for the Student Government Association, she puts in eight hours a week in the SGA office, in addition to guiding prospective students on MTSU’s Blue Tour and working occasionally in the Grand Ole Opry’s concession stand in Nashville.

Even in hock for college costs, Webb says she’s one of the “lucky ones,” compared to others who are $20,000-plus in debt. The average is $25,000 to $27,000 for graduates in Tennessee.

“What I’ve noticed is it puts stress on college students because in general we weren’t really taught how to handle money or anything, besides taking a personal finance class in high school,” she says, adding high schools need to emphasize money management.

More than that, Webb says, “Having the stress and being overwhelmed with having to come up with thousands of dollars can be detrimental to students and can be the reason they end up dropping out or don’t even attend college.”

Webb says several friends from her freshman year wound up dropping out because they couldn’t afford college, saying they would come back after a semester when they could afford it.

“But a lot of times they don’t end up coming back, and it’s really sad because nowadays you really need a college education to have a really good job,” she adds. 

On the rise

Students at four-year universities across Tennessee are paying about twice as much for tuition as they did a decade ago. Increases were in the 7 percent range but have dropped back to about 2 to 3 percent in the last couple of years.

In-state tuition at MTSU has gone up annually, jumping to $6,930 this year from $3,828 in 2006-07. At the University of Memphis, it went up to $7,860 from $4,388 10 years ago.

At the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, tuition increased in a similar fashion, to $9,028 for students enrolled before 2013-14 and $10,376 for those admitted in 2013-14 from $4,830 in 2006-07. Students admitted after 2013-14 are paying $10,678 a year in tuition.

Tuition has gone up similarly at Tennessee’s community colleges, up to $3,930 on average from $2,230 10 years ago. Consider, too, that tuition at community colleges was only about $175 30-plus years ago.

The Hope Scholarship provides an average of $4,000 a year for students at four-year colleges and $1,500 for community college students, about $3,000 short of coverage tuition at MTSU and $6,600 less than needed for UT-K, not to mention room, board and living expenses.

But students who go the JUCO route or to Tennessee’s colleges of applied technology, under the two-year-old Tennessee Promise scholarship can be admitted tuition free, provided they meet a few requirements such as community service and talking with mentors, etc. They don’t have the same type of GPA and ACT requirements as those applying for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2015-16, its first year, Tennessee had 16,291 Promise Scholarship recipients, 1,986 at technical schools, 13,923 at community colleges, a high of 1,332 at Motlow State, and 382 at private schools such as Bethel, Bryan College, Carson Newman, Cumberland Hiwassee and Martin Methodist. 

Tennessee Promise is one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s favorite programs, funded with reserve money in the lottery’s Hope Scholarship fund. He says it’s necessary to help Tennessee meet his Drive to 55 goal of 55 percent of Tennesseans holding a degree or certificate of higher education by 2025.

It’s a laudable goal but one that some officials believe could use a different approach.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat who sponsored the legislation leading to the state lottery and the Hope Scholarship while serving in the General Assembly, is a frequent critic of the Tennessee Promise program. 

Cohen contends President Barack Obama’s American College Promise program would supplement existing college aid programs instead of supplanting them, as he says Tennessee Promise does.

He argues the Promise “robs” existing lottery scholarship program by taking $500 per year from college students who “worked hard” in high school and maintained those grades to earn the Hope Scholarship to attend a four-year or community college. 

It also reduces by $125 per semester the Hope Access Grants for low-income students who make the grades to go to four-year colleges, he says.

Cohen also points out the Promise is a “last-dollar” program, meaning it covers only the cost of tuition, not housing, books or school-related expenses. In addition, he believes it helps wealthier and “less-accomplished” students rather than those who achieved the grades and test scores need to qualify for the Hope funds.

The congressman says he asked Haslam to increase the income threshold for Hope Access grants or raise the awards. 

“I hope that Gov. Haslam and the Legislature will consider increasing the amount of the Hope Lottery programs this year (2016), as they have not been raised to compensate for the rise in tuition during the past eight years – and, in fact, were lowered by the passage of Tennessee Promise,” he writes on his website.

But state lawmakers didn’t broach the idea during the last two years. More talk surfaced about freezing tuition than about increasing the Hope Scholarship award.

A move from both directions would be beneficial, because while some lawmakers blame universities for burgeoning budgets, higher education officials point out the burden of funding for higher education has flip-flopped with students and parents carrying the majority of a 60-30 split than vice versa.

State Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who co-chairs the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee, says he doesn’t expect any increase in Hope Scholarship for several more years.

Four-year students, on the other hand, say relief is needed immediately, especially with college student debt nationwide at about $1 trillion.

While MTSU student Webb sees the need for Tennessee Promise and even applied for it in case something didn’t work out in her effort to attend MTSU, she says state leaders need to shift their philosophy.

“I think they should start getting that (Promise money) into the four-year program and maybe getting our first two years paid for at a university,” Webb suggests.

If the state’s goal truly is to help people earn a diploma, they should take Emily Webb’s advice, because a college degree is a crucial part of finding a good career, but holding a $27,000 debt load is a tough way to start.