Dr. Bill Seymour, president of Cleveland State Community College, has continued to throw his support behind proposed state legislation that could result in an initiative called “Tennessee Promise,” which Gov. Bill Haslam proposed in a speech last month.
Seymour spoke of the importance of Tennessee’s community colleges and what the potential passage of two companion House and Senate bills would mean for them during a meeting of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club on Thursday.
“Community colleges are more relevant than ever,” Seymour said, adding he supports the possible legislation because it could allow more students to attend them.
If passed, House Bill 2491 and Senate Bill 2471 would enact the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act of 2014.
The act would allow students graduating from public high school or home-school programs to receive funding to attend the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 centers of applied technology. After a student goes through the normal financial aid process, they would be able to receive extra funding to eliminate any out-of-pocket costs for tuition.
Tennessee Promise funding recipients would then be required to work with an assigned mentor to navigate the college process, attend orientation meetings and perform community service. Seymour said it would be “a good extension” of an existing program called Tennessee Achieves in which some students at Cleveland State already take part.
Haslam said during his Feb. 3 “State of the State” address his proposal would help the state get closer to reaching the “Drive to 55” goal of 55 percent of Tennesseans earning college degrees of some kind by the year 2025.
His proposal included setting up an endowment to utilize reserve funds from the Tennessee Lottery. However, the way Tennessee Hope scholarships funded by the state lottery would be distributed would be affected by Tennessee Promise.
Haslam said scholarship amount for students of two-year colleges would increase from $2,000 a year to $3,000. However, the amount for four-year college students would receive would decrease from $4,000 a year to $3,000 during the freshman and sophomore years. After that the amount would increase to $5,000 a year for the junior and senior years.
Though the total amount a student would receive over the course of a four-year college career would remain the same, that aspect of the proposal has since been met with disdain from the presidents of some four-year college presidents across the state, including Lee University President Dr. Paul Conn. Some have said it would have a negative impact on their freshmen and sophomores.
However, Seymour on Thursday reiterated his view it would help community colleges continue to provide local companies with college graduates who are qualified to work.
“We’re in the position to provide the labor they need,” he said.
Seymour said he would also like to see more funding opportunities for adult students since “over a third” of Cleveland State’s current students are older than 25 and would not qualify for the Tennessee Promise, which is being proposed for students entering college right out of high school.
On a more personal note, he also shared about his personal journey as he became Cleveland State’s president. After the Tennessee Board of Regents named him the new president on Dec. 5, 2013, he and his wife, Catherine, had less than a month to pick up and move from Jackson, where he had been working as a vice president of Jackson State Community College.
He and his wife moved into their Cleveland home on Jan. 3, and his first day on the job was Jan. 6. Now that they have gotten to know the area better, he said they have “never felt more at home.”
On of the goals Seymour said he had when starting his tenure was to take part in a lot of “strategic planning” with faculty and staff to determine how the college can best serve its students. Discussions on things like new academic programs are already being discussed, and he said they will likely continue for months and include public meetings designed so members of the Cleveland community as a whole can give its input.
If the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act gets signed into law, Seymour said the college will likely need to do some extra planning to decide how best to accommodate what he predicts will be a big increase in the number of students.
As of Friday morning, both the state Senate and House education committees had recommended the bills for passage. The bills have both been referred to other committees and are awaiting further approval or denial.