Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill into law Wednesday, making the HOPE Scholarship available for students during the summer, beginning Summer 2012, and placing a 120-hour cap on the scholarship's use.
The HOPE changes will affect only students beginning at UT in Fall 2009 or later, and hours racked up using the scholarship before the bill's signing on Wednesday will still count for those students toward their 120-hour cap.
Hours taken during Summer 2011 do not count toward the 120-hour count.
The bill had passed the state Senate by a vote of 27 to 1 and the state House by a vote of 96-0.
State Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said the bill fell in line with last year's Complete College Tennessee Act, with its goal of ensuring students graduate and do so more quickly.
"We wanted to give students the flexibility to use their HOPE Scholarship any way they want throughout their college career, within the 120 hours it takes to complete a degree," Tracy said. "This means students can use the HOPE Scholarship money for any semester offered at the university."
There are exceptions in the bill for degrees that require more than 120 hours.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) supported the bill.
THEC Associate Executive Director Will Burns said the 120-hour cap will help guide students toward a timely graduation.
"That will help focus students to completing their degree and getting out," Burns said. "So the bill, in essence, dovetails with what was done last year in providing incentives to the colleges to educate the students quicker, and this just encourages students to do the same thing."
Students with double majors and triple majors, particularly current rising juniors, may be hit the hardest by the new provisions. In the middle of their college career, they are now under the 120-hour cap.
Burns said he understands where they are coming from but that the HOPE cannot provide for everything.
"Certainly that's unfortunate because you do have students out there who are high achievers and certainly we don't want to discourage that," Burns said. "At the same time, the lottery scholarship was never designed to allow a student to pursue every academic pursuit that they have in their mind. Certainly we don't want to discourage that, but at the same time, we can't fund everything."
Gina Stafford, UT assistant vice president and director of communications, said that about 2,200 UT students system-wide who received the HOPE Scholarship in Fall 2009 may have difficulty graduating with the 120-hour cap.
"These estimates refer to a potential but not definite number of students," Stafford said. "Every effort will be made to advise and assist students to facilitate graduation within the 120-hour cap."
UT Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Sally McMillan thinks making the HOPE Scholarship available for the summer is a major positive change in the steps toward improving graduation rate.
"There's good evidence that students who pick summer school are more likely to finish in four years," McMillan said. "And it is clear that, when the HOPE Scholarship came in and students weren't able to use it for the summer, we did see a big drop in summer school enrollment and an increase in the time it took students to finish their degrees."
However, she is ambivalent on the 120-hour cap.
"There are some real positives of it, in the sense that it keeps students focused in taking courses that are contributing toward their major," she said. "But it does limit students who are planning to take double majors and double minors. It also could potentially penalize students who don't find their major their first year."