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In a bid to alter the funding mechanism of Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal for free tuition at community colleges, a top official representing Tennessee's private colleges met with governor's office aides on Monday to push a counter plan they say would protect the state's four-year universities.

Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, called the meeting with Haslam's chief of staff Mark Cate and others "productive but very preliminary" as he lobbies to tweak Haslam's "Tennessee Promise" funding proposal. It heads to the Tennessee House Education Subcommittee on Tuesday — marking the first time state lawmakers will take up the plan.

In order to waive tuition at community colleges, TICUA has proposed targeting the Aspire award, a lottery-generated grant that provides up to $1,500 to low-income Hope scholarship recipients. It wants to reduce Aspire to $1,000 at four-year schools and eliminate it for community college students — who already would be getting free tuition. As a result, the lottery-funded Hope scholarship would stay at $4,000 for all four years under TICUA's proposal.

That's a key change from Haslam's plan, which would reduce Hope scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee's four-year universities to $3,000 from the current level of $4,000. Juniors and seniors would see their scholarships rise to $5,000. Both Haslam's plan and the TICUA counterproposal would tap some $300 million out of the lottery reserve fund to endow it.

Haslam is looking to make free tuition at community colleges the linchpin of efforts to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree to 55 percent by 2025. Leaders of four-year universities, though, raised immediate concerns after he unveiled his plan last month over a possible decline in enrollment at four-year universities — potentially 4-7 percent by its 2015 implementation, according to Pressnell, whose group represents 34 private colleges in Tennessee.

"It provides an opportunity for low-income students — and all students — to have access to the universities," he said of the counterproposal. "Under the governor's plan, it discourages enrollment at universities.

"As part of the 'Drive to 55,' we need all institutions to do more, including the community colleges. That's why our proposal still allows for the Tennessee Promise."

Dave Smith, press secretary for Haslam, said the two parties had a good discussion Monday. "We're continuing to analyze the effects of the proposal on the Tennessee Promise and overall lottery scholarship program."

The Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees the state's community colleges, opposes touching the Aspire award, arguing that doing so would undermine extending college access to more students.

"Eliminating or reducing the Aspire award would diminish the opportunities that make going to college a real possibility for our lowest-income students," Tennessee Board of Regents spokeswoman Monica Greppin-Watts said. "We should not shift funds away from these students to the benefit of others."

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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