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TN Promise falls short
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During  Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s fourth annual State of the State address to the General Assembly on Feb. 3, he unveiled his visionary “Tennessee Promise” proposal to offer free community and technology college education to graduating high school seniors.
“Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education, and we are raising our expectations as a state,” said Haslam. “We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”
Students who graduate from a community college and choose to attend a four-year college may also enter that college as a junior, under the state’s transfer pathways program. If they take advantage of Haslam’s Tennessee Promise and get their first two years free, the cost of a four-year degree could be cut nearly in half.
“This is a bold promise,” Haslam added. “It is a promise that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers. It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans, and it is a promise that we have the ability to make. Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”
To sustain the Tennessee Promise over time, Gov. Haslam proposed transferring lottery reserve funds to create an endowment to fund it. The Tennessee Promise is part of Haslam’s heralded “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school. By 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need one of these credentials to get a job, but in 2014, just 32 percent of Tennesseans qualify.
Haslam’s Tennessee Promise is a “bold” one – as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. The target audience for his proposal is clearly “graduating high school seniors.”
What about so-called “non-traditional students?” In my view, they deserve fair and equal opportunity to compete with graduating seniors for the fruits of the Tennessee Promise.
Whether their exclusion was an oversight or a deliberate slight, they need to be included.
  Fortunately, Haslam’s Tennessee Promise is a proposal, subject to legislative discussion, debate, and amendment. As it wends its way through the House (HB 2491) and Senate (SB 2471), an amendment to include non-traditional students would be the right thing to do. The precedent for doing so is already there. At first, non-traditional students were ineligible for HOPE Scholarships. Thanks to “we the people,” that wrong was righted, and this one can be, too.
If you agree with me on this issue, contact your state legislators ASAP: Sen. Janice Bowling, District 16, 1-800-449-8366, ext. 16694; Rep. Judd Matheny, District 47, 1-615-741-7448; Rep. Paul Bailey, District 43, 1-615-741-1963.
Retired Army Col. Thomas B. Vaughn can be reached at