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Sponsor: Bill To Help Scholarship Fund

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A legislative bill that would expand lottery scholarship eligibility to students who put off college for up to two years could help the dwindling fund grow, its sponsor said.

State Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque,is sponsoring House Bill 27 for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 15.

Current scholarship rules say students must attend college immediately after high school, but Stapleton said giving them more time could mean fewer scholarship awards — at least initially — and money saved.

However, a past study from the Higher Education Department found that expanding eligibility could increase enrollment in the lottery scholarship program, putting a further strain on the fund.

The lottery scholarship pays 100 percent of tuition for eight semesters at state colleges and universities for New Mexican students who attend immediately after getting their high school diploma or GED. Students must have a minimum 2.5 GPA and must register for a full-time courseload to be eligible.

The scholarship fund has helped more than 75,300 students since its inception in 1996, distributing $60 million to students just last year. But growing enrollment and soaring tuition have drained the fund, and it is expected to have a gap of more than $5 million by fiscal year 2014, which begins next July.

Legislators are looking at ways to reduce that deficit, either by changing eligibility requirements or by making the scholarship needs-based.

Under Stapleton’s bill, students would be able to put off school for up to two years and still be eligible for the scholarship.

That would take pressure off students who don’t feel ready for college but who go anyway because they don’t want to lose out on the fund, Stapleton said. In turn, fewer students would enroll in the program at least initially, therefore lessening the burden, she said. “It’s an expansion of an opportunity for students who are eligible and an opportunity for the fund to grow more,” Stapleton said.

Similar bills have failed in the past, such as one in 2011 that would have allowed enrollment up to 16 months after high school graduation and one in 2007 that would have done so for 12 months.

However, the fiscal impact report for the 2007 bill said expanded eligibility would have “an overall negative recurring impact.” A Higher Education Department study said the proposed 12-month expansion would have increased the number of enrollees by 322 students, at a cost of $852,000, in 2008.

“We have not closely examined (Stapleton’s bill) yet, and we would have to look at many factors before moving forward,” HED spokesman Larry Behrens said. “However, similar proposals in the past have shown no fiscal improvement on the lottery scholarship. We are open to solutions that help with the fiscal concerns of the lottery scholarship while still maintaining access for New Mexico’s students.”

Stapleton said she had not considered that expanding eligibility could drain the scholarship fund instead of relieving it.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal