Tennessee Promise a surprise and challenge for colleges

(WBIR - Knox County) If lawmakers approve Governor Bill Haslam's proposal to provide two years of free tuition at community colleges to graduating high school seniors, keeping the "Tennessee Promise" could have a huge impact on the state's colleges and universities.

Haslam's proposed "Tennessee Promise" plan says students who receive the free tuition would have to graduate high school, perform community service, and have a mentor to help with the transition into college.

The new plan will also be a big transition for the colleges. At Pellissippi State Community College, the administration said Tuesday it was unaware of Haslam's proposal until he announced it during Monday night's state of the state address.

"Tennessee Promise was a complete surprise to us. It was a very good surprise, but it was a surprise none of us expected," said Dr. Ted Lewis, vice president of academic affairs at Pellissippi State. "We have an enrollment of more than 10,000 students at our five campuses. We don't know how many students to anticipate as a result of this, but we do expect enrollment to increase dramatically."

Lewis said Pellissippi State already attracts many students who want to save money on core freshman and sophomore classes compared to the cost of tuition at a four-year university, with the intent of eventually transferring the credits to a larger school. The Tennessee Promise could send the amount of those students soaring at Pellissippi State.

"At our college, it [The Tennessee Promise] is a minimum savings of $8,000 if we're talking about the first two years. If we're talking about the first two years at the University of Tennessee or another four-year institution by coming here [with the Tennessee Promise], that could be $30,000 to $40,000 worth of savings," said Lewis.

On Tuesday, Governor Haslam addressed a crowd in Greeneville about his education proposal. Haslam told 10News this year's budget for capital investments primarily goes to community colleges in order to handle a large influx of students.

"We're looking at increasing their capacity to take on more students. We definitely think you'll see community colleges have a larger percentage of our students going forward. Again, that's a good thing for us," said Haslam.

At Pellissippi State, Lewis said there is a definite feeling of excitement at the possibility of the Tennessee Promise. Yet, that is tempered with anticipation for more details regarding what the college will have to accomplish to keep Haslam's promise.

"That's one thing we'll be looking at, can we meet this challenge. We know we can, but what ways can we address that challenge with the number of students is what we're looking forward to examining," said Lewis. "An educated populace also increases the overall tax base. So having more people with high school and college degrees improves the overall economy."

Administrators at the University of Tennessee system expressed a feeling of uncertainty on Tuesday regarding how the plan would impact its institutions. The general concern was higher for smaller institutions such as UT-Martin, due to a feeling the smaller universities are more likely to compete with community colleges for freshmen and sophomores than UT-Knoxville.


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