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TBR President Pens Guest Column Supporting TN Promise

The following article appeared in several papers across the state:

In February, during his State of the State address, Gov. Bill Haslam proposed something extraordinary.

He introduced the Tennessee Promise, an initiative that will provide “last dollar” scholarships at community colleges within the state, providing the opportunity for every Tennessee high school graduate to attend college free. This program will cover the gaps between tuition costs and a student’s available financial aid and is a logical next step in our state’s commitment to raising educational attainment.

Tennessee has been on the cutting edge of higher education reform in our nation, first with the passage of the Complete College Tennessee Act in 2010, and later with the launch of the Drive to 55. This Drive to 55 sets an ambitious goal of increasing the number of Tennesseans with an associate’s degree or technical certificate from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

As a business leader, I can personally attest that this goal is not just a statistical benchmark. Reaching the Drive to 55 is an economic imperative for our state and will ensure that companies, like the members of the Tennessee Business Roundtable, are able to find qualified workers right here in Tennessee.

Unfortunately, the current condition of our workforce can make the task of finding new employees a challenge. Among Tennessee’s current high school graduates, 41 percent fail to enroll in college. Increasing the number of students that enter higher education requires us to remove all hurdles, especially financial barriers, which hinder students from pursuing the opportunities a college degree affords. The Tennessee Promise is the most important possible step our state can take to provide this opportunity for all students.

While the HOPE Lottery Scholarship has been available for nearly a decade, we are still failing to reach a segment of students that do not consider themselves “college material.” We must send a message to these students that they can succeed in higher education, and that the Tennessee Promise isn’t a promise to a narrow segment of high school graduates, but a promise for all graduating seniors.

Finally, the Tennessee Promise does all of these things in a fiscally responsible way. Often, financial aid promises are underfunded or do not have the financing structure to weather downturns in the economy. The Tennessee Promise addresses that issue with a recommendation to create a special endowment, funded with reserve funds from the Tennessee Education Lottery. As Gov. Haslam summarized in his State of the State speech: “Net cost to the state, zero. Net impact on our future, priceless.”

This is a bold promise. It’s an initiative that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers in the state. And it speaks volumes of another kind to generations of young people to come: Education beyond high school is a critical priority in the state of Tennessee.

Surely that type of promise is worth making … and keeping.

Gary Shorb is president of the Tennessee Business Roundtable and president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare.



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