Home » Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: Higher Education

Legislative Update from State Senator Joey Hensley: Higher Education

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   The 2020-2021 budget includes $38 million in capital maintenance across higher education institutions from the Higher Education Capital Maintenance Fund and $2 million non-recurring statewide security grants. It also includes $1 million for additional Veteran Reconnect grants. In addition, a correctional education investment of $4.43 million was approved in recurring funds and $984,600 in non-recurring funds. The legislation below was passed during the 2020 session to improve higher education across the state.

  Legislation simplifies admission process to help adult learners seeking higher education degree – The legislature approved a new law to help adult learners with an associate’s degree obtain their four-year degree. The measure ensures that a person with an associate’s degree does not have to provide their high school transcript or GED certificate when applying to a higher education institution. Instead, the applicant can provide their associate degree certificate. This legislation simplifies the application process for many adult degree seekers who might no longer have access to their high school transcript.

   Tennessee Responsible Borrowing Initiative Act passes to help students avoid unnecessary debt — Legislation requiring public higher education institutions to provide students with important financial information to help them better evaluate the impact of indebtedness passed this year. The new law provides that when a student is finalizing their acceptance of a financial aid package, the institution must provide them with the net cost in an interactive loan scenario calculator, along with pertinent information on responsible student borrowing. 

    The new law provides a tool that the state higher education institutions give students to tell them what it’s going to cost them to go to school; what sort of financial aid they might have; what their potential indebtedness might be; and educates them to what the payoff is going to look like over time. Passage of the legislation follows the Tuition Transparency and Accountability Act approved in 2018 which provided more transparency and accountability regarding tuition and fee hikes at Tennessee’s colleges and universities. It provided that any tuition increase must be substantiated by stating the amount of increase, the reason for the increase, and any steps that may have been taken to control it.

   FAST Act simplifies and modernizes financial aid programs, while maximizing stewardship of grants benefitting students — Cost-saving legislation, simplifying and modernizing the HOPE Lottery Scholarship’s financial aid program, was approved in 2020. Called the Financial Aid Simplification for Tennessee (FAST) Act, it is the most comprehensive financial aid overhaul since the implementation of the HOPE Lottery Scholarship Program in 2003. It streamlines state law so that students and their families have a clearer understanding of their options, while maximizing stewardship of grant programs that benefit students. It also aims to keep students on a path to graduation as Tennessee strives to create a highly skilled, credentialed workforce to ensure economic prosperity and competitiveness. 

   Laws governing Tennessee’s financial aid program for students have been amended 84 times since its inception, causing much confusion regarding their interpretation. The programs also need to be aligned with new federal policies which govern them. Currently, HOPE lottery scholarship aid can be used for courses outside of a student’s major that do not progress them meaningfully forward in their program of study. The legislation provides that financial aid should only pay for programs within the student’s field of study to keep a focus on timely graduation and costs. The bill also establishes one clear definition of HOPE scholarship termination at completion of five years or achievement of a degree.  It ensures, however, that ROTC students are not penalized for enrolling in military science courses. 

   In addition, the legislation winds down loan programs that are not working, have low enrollment, or that are supplanted by new programs. Students currently enrolled in those programs will be “grandfathered in” and will not be affected. The legislation allows THEC to realize up to $4 million in savings annually at a time when the higher education and the state’s financial aid programs have suffered significant losses due to COVID-19. 

   Legislation focuses on campus safety — Legislation was enacted during the 2020 session creating a chief of police position to coordinate campus security and policy across 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) and 13 community colleges to keep students safe.  The new law was recommended by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) after studying safety needs on their campuses.

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