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Editorial: Give lotto students a real chance for success

The legislative class of 2014 will be repeating Lottery Finances 101, and the college educations of thousands of New Mexico students depend on lawmakers getting a passing grade this time around.

Because the New Mexico Lottery Success Scholarship fund remains on the edge of insolvency. Last year’s $10 million raid on the state’s tobacco settlement fund earned lawmakers an “Incomplete” at best. Their real work – establishing long-term solvency while ensuring recipients have a real chance of graduating college rather than just attending it – remains undone.

Higher Education Secretary José Garcia has warned university and community college presidents that “it is imperative the Legislature take swift action during the 2014 legislative session to avoid what could be a dramatic reduction in the amount awarded to all students who qualify for the lottery scholarship.”

But not all proposed fixes deserve credit.

The misguided plan to make the scholarship needs-based is back and should be quickly dismissed. While some means-testing may be appropriate to exclude students from truly wealthy families who can easily afford tuition, those who come from hard-working middle-income families should not have to choose between placing a huge financial burden on their parents and skipping college.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat who is co-chairing a lottery fund task force, is proposing finding an additional revenue stream to keep the program solvent. That worked with the one-time tobacco fund raid – a go-to account that is also going broke, by the way – but Legislative Finance Committee leaders have been loathe to siphon from other sources.

Last year, Sen. John Arthur Smith said using general state funds was not an option, and vice chairman Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela pointed out “we’re trying to balance the budget. We’re looking at not trying to divert recurring revenue from the general fund at this point in time.”

With improved state finances, however, perhaps that option should be reconsidered.

While additional funding may be an option, the task force would do better to recommend bringing the scholarship program into line with community and higher education goals of increasing the number of post-secondary degrees in the state.

Rather than hand lotto scholarships out to all comers with a GED or 2.5 GPA, a 2010 LFC report recommended linking scholarship eligibility with predictors for graduating.

Proposals included: increasing the minimum course load from 12 to 15 hours; setting stricter eligibility requirements for research institutions and four-year colleges compared to two year colleges; setting high school performance standards (GPA, college preparation or class rank); requiring remedial coursework be taken at lower-cost institutions; and excluding remedial courses from the required course load.

Last year, Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque, also proposed reducing the number of paid semesters from eight to seven (the first semester is not covered) so the scholarship and, ideally, students are finished in four years, as well as pushing two-year colleges so students get their remedial and basic coursework at more affordable credit-hour rates.

As Sanchez points out, the program’s popularity has made it a “victim of its own success.”

While it is appropriate to consider additional revenue streams for the program, lawmakers should also update its mission so scholarship recipients have a real chance of succeeding.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.