Cohen: Governor's "Promise" Raids Scholarship Fund, Makes It Harder for Students to Afford Tennessee's Best Colleges

February 4, 2014
Press Release

[WASHINGTON, DC] – Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today expressed strong concerns about Governor Bill Haslam’s recently-announced plan to raid funds from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship surplus account to create a new government program, disincentivize high-achieving young people from enrolling at 4-year institutions of higher learning, and make it more difficult for Tennessee families to send their children to the best universities and colleges in the state. The Congressman also suggested more effective methods to keep college affordable for Tennesseans and help students succeed.

“Over the last 10 years, the HOPE Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a State Senator to create has been an unparalleled success that has provided $2.9 billion to Tennessee’s best and brightest,” said Congressman Cohen. “And while this funding has been critical to helping students attend college and complete 4-year degrees, the HOPE Scholarship has never fully funded college scholarships, as intended, because it has not kept up with the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Today’s HOPE Scholarships pay a smaller portion of college costs than it did 10 years ago and with Governor Haslam’s plan it will provide even smaller scholarships for freshmen and sophomores. The first two years of college are crucial for students finding their way.  With scholarships paying a smaller portion of tuition, families will have to pay more and students may need to work while studying, making academic success and retention of the HOPE Scholarship more difficult.  Today’s college students are graduating with more student loan debt than ever before, crippling their chances of economic success.”

The Tennessee Education Lottery, which funds the HOPE Scholarship program, just last month celebrated its 10th anniversary. At the time, Congressman Cohen wrote a column in the Tennessean highlighting the need for both Governor Haslam and the state legislature to fully fund HOPE Scholarship. The Governor’s newly announced “Tennessee’s Promise” plan instead cuts HOPE Scholarships for college freshman by 25%, making it harder for middle- and low-income students to enroll at and attend Tennessee’s best universities and colleges and placing more financial burden on Tennessee families.

“To ensure that HOPE Scholarships continue to help Tennessee’s students afford college and succeed, the program must keep pace with the rising cost of higher education,” continued the Congressman. “But the Governor’s ‘Promise’ actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning 4-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, or any plan that places additional financial burden on schools like the University of Memphis which are already struggling to keep costs down and provide high-quality educations.”

The Governor’s plan also transfers $302 million from the lottery surplus funds to create a new government program that disincentivizes Tennessee’s students from seeking higher education at 4-year institutions. Congressman Cohen outlined a better way to use those surplus funds that would actually help achieve the goals that the people of Tennessee voted for when they created the Tennessee Education Lottery by passing for the constitutional referendum in 2002.

The Congressman concluded: “Rather than raiding the scholarship fund’s surplus to create a new government program, those funds should be used for what the people of Tennessee voted for: encouraging Tennessee high school students to work hard and earn a scholarship which will then keep our best and brightest students in Tennessee and providing Tennessee with a highly educated and desirable workforce. The surplus funds would be better used, as I personally expressed last year to Governor Haslam, by raising the income cap on or raising the amount of Aspire Awards that give middle- and low-income students who work hard extra help to give them a fair shot at success.”