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State Lawmaker Proposes a ‘Gap Year’ Before College

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An ABQ House member has proposed giving students up to 16 months to enroll in college with the lottery scholarship

An Albuquerque lawmaker is hoping to give high school graduates more time to consider college without losing eligibility for the lottery scholarship.

Rep. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, has proposed giving students up to 16 months to enroll in college with the lottery scholarship, allowing time for some students to be better prepared for college and hopefully improve academic performance.

To qualify for the four-year, full tuition scholarship, students currently are required to enroll in a New Mexico college or university within four months of graduation. That timeline allows for a summer break between a high school graduation in May and the start of college classes in August or September.

College graduation rates in New Mexico are among the nation’s worst, with 40.3 percent of students graduating in six years, compared with the national average of 55.9 percent, according to 2008 data. About 40.9 percent of students who received the lottery scholarship since 1996 have graduated.

Giving students a chance to get real world experience that guides their college choices could be a better solution than forcing unprepared students to enroll in college immediately to retain their chance at a scholarship, O’Neill said.

Known as a “gap year” by many academics, the year between high school and college is often used by students to travel, volunteer or work in a profession of interest before committing to college study.

“It’s been my own personal life experience that a person does better in academia when they’re focused on their objective and they’re clear on the fact that this is where they want to be,” O’Neill said.

But making the scholarship available to more students could mean increased expenses for the lottery scholarship tuition fund already struggling with rising tuition rates.

The lottery fund does not receive money from the general fund. Instead a portion of state lottery revenues is set aside to fund tuition bills. The scholarship does not pay student fees or other college expenses. Eligible students also must take at least 12 credit hours of classes and maintain a grade-point average of 2.5.

The Legislative Finance Committee has projected if tuitions continue to increase at a rate of at least 5 percent per year, the lottery fund would fail to cover scholarships by 2015. To protect the fund, an LFC report has recommended restricting eligibility.

A proposal to give students an extra year to consider college was considered by the Legislature in 2007. After passing the House, the bill died in a Senate committee.

A financial analysis of that legislation estimated offering seniors an additional year to commit to college could cost the fund an additional $852,000 each year.

If the change results in students being more successful in college and retaining the scholarship longer, the increased bill could be as high as $6.3 million, according to the 2007 fiscal impact report.