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Proposed scholarship fixes heard

Legislators on Monday started juggling the myriad proposals intended to bring solvency to the lottery scholarship program, which already is expected to be in the hole about $27 million this year.

As lawmakers weigh whether and how to make cuts or narrow eligibility, a Republican senator tossed a new plan into the mix: Leave it up to each school to figure it out.

Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne of Albuquerque told the Senate Education Committee that, despite years of effort to come up with a solvency plan, “politically, we’ve never been able to agree on anything.”

His solution would have the Legislature appropriating the scholarship money, the Higher Education Department deciding how much could be spent each year and the boards of regents or other governing bodies deciding which of their qualified students would get scholarships, and the amounts.

Schools could set their own priorities – for example, make financial need the driver in awarding scholarships, or use them to encourage studies in a particular field.

Funded by the state lottery, the scholarships pay tuition for state residents for eight consecutive semesters if they keep 2.5 GPAs. They must have gone to an in-state high school and enter college right after graduation.

University presidents by and large could live with hiking the GPA requirement from 2.5 to 2.75 and the required course load from 12 to 15 credits, and with reducing the number of semesters a student is eligible from eight to seven, said Steven Gamble, president of Eastern New Mexico University and vice president of the Council of University Presidents.

That wouldn’t make the fund solvent, however, and Gamble said any cuts in funding beyond that should be across the board to all institutions.

University student associations, meanwhile, support legislation proposed by the Legislative Finance Committee that includes those same changes – 15 credits, seven semesters, 2.75 GPA – but also turns the scholarship into flat awards not linked to tuition.

The awards would vary by the type of institution, covering tuition at community and branch colleges almost fully, covering about 84 percent of tuition at the research universities – the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State and New Mexico Tech – and about 66 percent of tuition at the others, according to an analysis of the bill done for legislators.

The Senate Education Committee didn’t take any action on the lottery bills, which also included proposals to freeze tuition for lottery scholarship recipients for their four years to discourage tuition hikes, and to award scholarships based on the type of institution and the number of semesters the students have completed.

The committee plans to try to come up with a substitute bill that would incorporate various proposals.

The House Education Committee, meanwhile, heard a bill to create flat awards based on the type of institution, the student’s GPA and the student’s unmet need. It would create 64 possible award amounts, ranging next year from $250 to $2,100. The committee shipped it along to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee without any recommendation whether to approve it.