I know firsthand the value of a good education. My parents are two of the wisest people I know, but as products of the Great Depression era, they lacked the same educational opportunities many of us have today and never made it past the ninth grade.
Growing up, I saw how despite their tireless work ethic and skills, they struggled to provide for my siblings and me. So with the help of a few odd jobs and a scholarship from the Optimist Club, I became the first person in my family to attend college. I took the bus across town each week to attend class and, in due time, earned my nursing degree.
My college diploma offered me a ticket to a better life, and I want future generations of Americans, like my six grandchildren, to know these same opportunities. When President Obama talks about the need to help more students realize the dream of higher education, I get it. Unfortunately, his latest proposal of “free” community college tuition still misses the mark.
First announced during the president’s visit to my home state of Tennessee last week, the America’s College Promise program would attempt to replicate the early success of the Tennessee Promise initiative that became state law last year. But there are more than a few differences between the two plans that his administration would seemingly prefer to ignore.
Tennessee Promise is a “last-dollar scholarship” that will pay for high school graduates’ remaining tuition expenses at our state community and technical colleges after other scholarships have been exhausted.
It is a state led initiative tailored to the unique needs of our students and, frankly, it is a promise that our state could afford to make. Unlike Washington, Tennessee balances our budget each year, all while maintaining a low tax burden and the lowest debt per capita of any state in the union.
The program is paid for through a lottery reserve fund, meaning that the scholarships come at a net cost of zero dollars to state taxpayers. The president’s proposal, on the other hand, would cost the federal government $60 billion over ten years, according to the administration’s own estimates. That is on top of the $20 billion that analysts expect participating states would be required to kick in – all with no mention from the White House of possible offsets elsewhere in the federal budget to help defray the cost.
And, importantly, our governor earned the trust of the state legislature – which approved the plan with overwhelming bipartisan support – rather than poisoning the well as President Obama did by enacting sweeping, legally questionable policies through unilateral action just weeks before he intends to submit the plan to Congress.
When it comes to expanding educational opportunities, our states are best equipped to help achieve this goal. Tennessee has provided a viable model through “Tennessee Promise” and other states would be right to follow our example – but it must be a decision of their choosing, not a one-size-fits-all solution from Uncle Sam.
In the meantime, Republicans have offered President Obama plenty of opportunities to work together to help our students. For example, Senate Republicans recently introduced a measure to condense the 108-question application for federal student aid. During the last Congress, I also authored and passed the Student and Family Tax Simplification Act – bipartisan legislation to streamline the number of education provisions in the tax code and retool those that are most effective.
We all want to see more doors of opportunity opened for the next generation of students, but a “free” community college proposal that simply shifts the cost to taxpayers and risks adding to an already unsustainable national debt is the wrong approach.