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Steve Ahillen
By Steve Ahillen August 29, 2012

Making good on HOPE vow

The Tennessee Newspaper Network asked all of the candidates prior to the 2010 election about the HOPE scholarship, which the state gives to the graduating high school seniors to apply to college expenses if the students meet certain criteria. The program was operating at a deficit at the time and there were other criticisms of the rules governing how money was dispersed.

Candidate Bill Haslam responded: "As governor, I will revisit the goals of the (HOPE Scholarship) program and carefully evaluate its effectiveness at meeting those goals. I will work to enhance the impact of all lottery scholarship programs.”

First, a bit on the scholarship program. The HOPE scholarship provides $4,000 a year for students attending a four-year institution or $2,000 a year for students attending a two-year institution. Students must have a minimum 21 ACT or 980 SAT score or have a minimum 3.0 grade point average. The program took effect in 2004. Money comes from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship program.

Haslam did make good on his promise to adjust the HOPE system on June 8, 2011, by signing into law a bill he pushed to allow HOPE Scholarship money to be used for summer courses.

"Extending summer eligibility makes the scholarship more user-friendly for students while allowing higher education institutions to better utilize their buildings and campuses throughout the course of the year,” he said at the time.

Educators backed that part of the new law. University of Tennessee Provost for Academic Affairs Sally McMillan told The Beacon, the university's student newspaper, that it was positive step:

"There's good evidence that students who pick summer school are more likely to finish in four years. And it is clear that, when the HOPE Scholarship came in and students weren't able to use it for the summer, we did see a big drop in summer school enrollment and an increase in the time it took students to finish their degrees.”

The law also provides for a 120-hour cap on the number of hours for which the student can apply the scholarship money, and many educators weren't quite as fond of that. They felt it would discourage students from going for double majors or taking courses that aren't vital for their major.

That aside, the law undeniably does "enhance the impact” of the scholarship program as Haslam promised.

We had held up on making this a "Promise Kept” when we ruled on this March 17, 2012, because a big battle was raging in the state legislature at the time concerning funding for the HOPE scholarship.

The program operated at a $9.3 million deficit in 2009 and there were concerns that figure would mushroom to $20 million soon with no changes.  A task force was put together and recommended in November  2011 cutting the scholarship in half for students who met only one of the two criteria, giving the full scholarship to only those students who reached both the SAT/ACT and the GPA thresholds.

In the midst of it all, the state lottery program bounced back in a big way. Its war chest grew to over $400 million. The dire predictions faded into the background. An alternate plan was considered to have the tougher guidelines kick in only if a certain level of funding was not achieved each year, but even that plan didn"t get approved.

The crisis has been averted, leaving us to again look at Haslam's original promise to enhance the HOPE scholarship program. Answer: We believe he did with the addition of the summer school  funding.  Promise Kept.

A note before we completely sign off on this: Haslam has indicated he will make higher education a main focus of his next year in office. Although this vow might be aimed more at the quality of education and its application to enhancing the state's desirability to employers, there is the chance he will be revisiting the HOPE scholarship. We"ll keep watching.

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