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Hope Scholarship Needs to Remain Focused on Success


Hope Scholarship Needs to Remain Focused on Success

The Tennessee Hope Scholarship program is beginning to out-pace the lottery revenue to sustain the program.  Now that the future funding is in jeopardy various proposals on how to save money are being offered.  Two of the founding goals of the program are to provide access to higher education and to keep the best and brightest in Tennessee.  It is important for reforms to the program to maintain a focus on where the program has been most successful in achieving its goals.

            Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen’s suggestion in Saturday’s (January 2, 2010) Tennessean to reduce the private college scholarship seems uninformed.  Tennessee’s private colleges have offered more evidence accomplishing the goals of the lottery scholarship program than their public university partners.  Overall, more Tennessee’s brightest high school graduates are choosing to stay in state.  The in-state enrollment of private colleges has increased by 13.9%, Tennessee Board of Regents universities by 2.7% and the University of Tennessee system by 4%.  Prior to the inception of the lottery, Tennessee’s private colleges and universities enrollment was 60% out-of-state and 40% in-state.  Since the lottery program started, those figures have reversed with 60% Tennesseans and 40% from all over the world.  This means that Tennessee’s private colleges are successful in keeping Tennessee’s brightest in-state.  Private colleges not only have the largest percentage of in-state enrollment increases, they also attract a larger percentage of intellectual capital from all over the world than any other higher education sector in Tennessee.

            When offering in-state options for Tennessee’s taxpayers, regionally accredited Tennessee based private colleges need to remain a clear choice.  The current policy of offering a base $4,000 portable scholarship for students to use at either a public or private four year Tennessee university is good policy.  Tennesseans have demonstrated this by choosing private colleges at a greater rate than public universities.  As well, the private colleges retain and graduate lottery scholarship recipients at higher rates.  The individual-focused culture of the independent colleges and universities has proven successful in students keeping their scholarships and graduating sooner than their public university partners.

            The state’s public higher education budget is currently being maintained by the Federal Stimulus funds which means that when those funds are gone next year the capacity to serve students will be further diminished.  Private colleges use non-state funds to increase the capacity to serve Tennesseans.  This is the time to consider how to maximize the private college option, not reduce it.

Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s Executive Director Richard Rhoda’s suggestion to increase the community college grant to $3,000 by reducing the freshman and sophomore university grant from $4,000 to $3,000 also moves the program in the wrong direction.  Tennessee’s community college graduation rates average 11.6% whereas Tennessee’s private college and university is 60%.  Numerous studies have shown that students who desire to attain a bachelor’s degree are significantly more successful if they start at a four-year college or university rather than a community college.  This does not mean that Tennessee’s community colleges are not important, they are!  Community colleges offer basic workforce training better than the four year universities but they are not the best starting point for attaining a four year degree.

As well, there is evidence that community college students do not need increased grant aid more than their four year counterparts.  Community college tuition and fees in Tennessee are just under $3,000 per year; a fraction of the cost of attending a university.  Low to moderate income students choosing a Tennessee community college could be eligible for a considerable amount of financial aid.  For example, a student might qualify for $2,000 to $3,500 in a Hope Scholarship, plus a $2,200 Federal Pell Grant, and plus a $1,100 State Grant.  That’s right, a possibility of $6,800 of non-payback student aid to go against a tuition bill of $3,000.  There is no apparent pressing need to increase the Hope Scholarship for community college students.  Rather they need increased financial assistance to transfer to a public or private four year college or university to finish their education.  A better policy choice would be to offer incentives for community college students to continue on to obtain a four year degree.

There is no doubt that decisions need to be made to better align the scholarship expenditures with the funding, but quality and success should not be sacrificed.  The first and foremost purpose of the lottery funding is to provide access to higher education in Tennessee.  Consequently, the first cuts should be with non-scholarship programs, then non-core Hope Scholarship programs should be considered for reduction before meddling with the most successful use of the funds.      

Dr. Claude Pressnell


Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association