Increasing Access to Higher Education: What Tennessee Can Learn From West Virginia

Tennessee recently opened the door to higher education for many high-school students by way of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. This initiative is part of Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 program, which aims to have 55 percent of residents with a college degree or certificate by 2025. Tennessee’s Promise scholarship program is pretty good; it provides free tuition to a two-year community or technical college. The scholarship seems to be a good way of motivating students to pursue some form of education after high school. But what if it went further? What if, instead of just a two-year community college, Tennessee provided a scholarship that would cover tuition at any four-year public college or university in the state?

The Golden Ticket

The idea is not as farfetched as one might imagine, and I should know. I was the beneficiary of a similar scholarship awarded to students in West Virginia. When I graduated high school, my modest 24 composite ACT score, but solid 3.75 GPA was more than enough to get the golden ticket to college in the Mountain State: the West Virginia PROMISE scholarship. The West Virginia PROMISE (Providing Real Opportunities for Maximizing In-State Student Excellence) scholarship program began in 2002 to not only improve access to higher education, but to keep its best and brightest students in order to establish a more well-educated workforce in the state. At the time I graduated high school in 2008, the scholarship provided free tuition to any public college or university in West Virginia or an equal amount to offset the cost of private four-year institution. PROMISE allowed me to save over $21,000 and made my dream of pursuing a four-year degree a reality where otherwise it may not have been.

Two More Years

Tennessee could benefit from a scholarship program like the West Virginia PROMISE, especially because its own effort does not go far enough. The scholarship only applies to a handful of four-year institutions, and limits its purview to a few specified associate’s degree programs. This means that a student cannot use the scholarship to pursue a four-year degree at a school like the University of Tennessee. This severely restricts high school students. The Tennessee Promise is a great program and there is nothing wrong with pursuing an associate’s degree or trade certificate. However, the scholarship may deter students from pursuing a four-year degree by taking the option that costs less, even if they want a four-year degree. By building the Tennessee Promise into a four-year scholarship program, it would enable many more students to pursue their collegiate dreams by decreasing the amount of money students will owe. The West Virginia PROMISE is not without its flaws. Critics of replicating this idea for Tennessee would be apt to point out that PROMISE has undergone major restructuring. Due to a number of factors, most notably that tuition has constantly increased and more students qualified than anticipated, PROMISE was  capped at $4,750 per year in 2010. However, one of the legislators who backed the scholarship during its inception has claimed that PROMISE has barely tapped into the revenue streams originally designated for it—a sign that there is money to continue fully funding it as it was created. A scholarship covering tuition at four-year colleges in Tennessee may sound like a large expenditure, but it also functions as an investment in the future of the state. By creating an avenue that enables students to stay and attend college in the state, it increases the odds that those students will stay and would put the Drive to 55 in the fast lane.  
Charles Corra currently works as a community organizer at RePublic Charter Schools in Nashville, Tennessee. He blogs in his personal capacity as a private citizen.
Charles Corra
Although he blogs in his personal capacity as a private citizen, Charles currently works in education in Nashville, Tennessee. In this position, Charles works to build communities inside and outside of schools. Charles particularly works to create a strong parent engagement base in order to create transparency and involvement in all aspects of education. Charles has worked in a variety of ...

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