The Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act of 2014 passed the state Senate by a 30-1 vote Monday evening.
The bill, unveiled by Gov. Bill Haslam at his State of the State address on Feb. 3, will only cover tuition after other financial aid, such as need-based scholarships and Pell grants, have been applied for by all qualifying Tennessee high school students.
During floor debate, an amendment was passed removing the cap of 120 hours for HOPE scholarship recipients.
The scholarship will provide two-and-a-half years of free tuition at any qualifying post-secondary institution for the purpose of attaining an associate's degree or two-year certificate. Only students attending an institution that offers two-year programs will be eligible.
The program is estimated to have a yearly cost of $34 million, and will be funded primarily through a $300 million transfer of excess lottery fund reserves, in addition to a $47 million endowment created by the General Assembly in 2013.
To pay for the program, HOPE scholarship funds will be partially diverted to the Promise. These changes will only affect students who start in fall 2015 and after.
Excess funds will be transferred to the Promise only after obligations to students currently receiving HOPE money and other lottery scholarships have been fulfilled.
Changes to the HOPE will guarantee all qualifying students $3,500 a year during their freshmen and sophomore years, regardless of in-state academic institution attended. Upon reaching their junior year, students will receive $4,500 a year, still guaranteeing qualifying students a $16,000 cumulative scholarship.
Recipients of the Promise must show progress toward a degree and participate in regular community service and mentoring.
The Promise is part of Gov. Haslam's Drive to 55 Initiative, which seeks to have 55 percent of Tennesseans hold some form of higher education by the year 2025. Haslam said in his Feb. 3 address that only 32 percent of residents currently meet this criteria.
Prior to passage, state Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, criticized the bill for rewarding students regardless of their college readiness, negating the bill's ability to increase Tennessee graduation rates.
"I think we are giving away free college to people who are not prepared for college," Hensley said.
Hensley was the lone vote against the bill.
The passage of the bill marks a turning point in education culture, state Sen. Dolores R. Gresham, R-Somerville, said, who also noted that with the bill's passage "every youngster has a chance to go to college."
The bill will be sent to the House of Representatives Tuesday for a vote.