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Editorial: Turns out funding college is as chancy as a lottery

It’s a national report with an ominous title: “A Gamble with Consequences: State Lottery-Funded Scholarship Programs as a Strategy for Boosting College Affordability.”

The results of the study by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities have been borne out in New Mexico’s experience with its Lottery Success Scholarship program. That well-intended exercise in giving every New Mexico high school grad a college experience has failed to keep up with demand and required multiple, multimillion-dollar non-gambling infusions, including:

  • $5 million from the Tobacco Settlement Fund.
  • $11 million from the Student Financial Aid Special Program fund in 2013.
  • $2.9 million from the general fund in 2013.
  • $11.5 million from the general fund this year.
  • $19 million from the state’s liquor excise tax in fiscal 2016.
  • $19 million from the state’s liquor excise tax in fiscal 2017.

In addition to this supplemental funding, state lawmakers have made eligibility changes to try to keep the scholarship program alive – which even a freshman should be able to tell you is quite different from solvent. Now most students will have to take an extra 3 credit hours a semester, complete rather than just enroll in courses and finish in four years.

And all will get an award based on how much money is available in the fund, not how much they need to cover 100 percent of tuition.

Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who helped draft the scholarship legislation in 1996, says the program “has allowed many individuals to participate in higher education, people who otherwise wouldn’t have had that opportunity. The positive effects of the scholarship on those who choose to participate extend to the state in general. I would rather fall on the side of access to higher education for those students, who would never have had the opportunity.”

Participation and success aren’t the same thing. And the study makes clear that one reason is New Mexico overlooks the “scholar” portion of scholarship.

Of eight states that earmark lottery funds for college:

  • Only New Mexico does not require a minimum high school GPA.
  • Only New Mexico does not require a minimum ACT or SAT score.
  • New Mexico is one of four with no core course requirements.
  • New Mexico is among the seven states that do not consider high school ranking, and among the six that do not require community service.

New Mexico is the only state that requires a minimum college GPA (2.5) to keep the scholarship, but that low bar coupled with the lack of academic rigor to qualify in the first place helps explain the dismal graduation rates at the state’s colleges and universities.

Lawmakers need to consider these factors going forward, and determine:

  • If a chance to “participate in higher education” and rack up some significant student loans to supplement tuition as well as pay the ancillary costs of college is the right course, or,
  • If this program should be a “scholarship” in more than name and have academic requirements to help ensure higher education is affordable to recipients who get through, not just to, college.

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.