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Lottery scholarship stays at 90% of tuition

FILE PHOTO

FILE PHOTO

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Many New Mexico students in higher education will receive the same amount of state scholarship aid in a year when tuition rose at many schools.

The Journal learned Tuesday that the state’s Higher Education Department said the lottery scholarship will still cover roughly 90 percent of a eligible student’s tuition costs through the 2016-17 school year. The state has made some alterations to the scholarship to keep it alive.

“These changes have had some initial benefit on the solvency of the fund, however, tuition and enrollment continue to outpace Lottery Scholarship funding,” wrote Barbara Damron, the cabinet secretary of the state’s higher education department, in a letter dated May 25 to the state’s universities and colleges.

The lottery scholarship is a program that covers the majority of tuition costs for eligible New Mexico high school graduates who attend state higher education institutions. About 30,700 students received nearly $61 million in scholarships in the 2015 fiscal year, which covered 90 percent of their tuition.

“New Mexico students continue to benefit from the generosity of the Legislative Lottery Scholarship and should look to attend colleges and universities in the state to minimize higher education expense and student loan debt,” said Terry Babbitt, an associate vice president at UNM.

The scholarship used to cover 100 percent of a student’s tuition. But in recent years that rate fell from to 95 percent to 90 percent most recently. At the same time, tuition costs at the majority of the state’s colleges keep rising.

The lottery scholarship has seen changes in recent years. Instead of covering eight semesters, the award covers only seven. Students used to be able to take 12 credit hours and maintain the scholarship, but these days they have to take at least 15 credit hours.

The New Mexico Lottery’s contribution amount has fluctuated by millions of dollars since 2010. That year, the New Mexico Lottery contributed roughly $43.6 million to the scholarship fund. The next two years, the lottery gave about $41.3 million, and in fiscal year 2013 it gave $43.7 million. Fiscal year 2014 saw a slump to $40.9 million, and a slight uptick in fiscal year 2015 to $41.1 million.

Fiscal year 2016 has yet to finish, but the department projected a $45.3 million contribution to the scholarship fund. Wendy Ahlm, a spokeswoman with the New Mexico Lottery, said two factors account for the likely record return: a large surge thanks to spending for a massive January jackpot, and the scratcher program, which has seen a $17 million increase in sales in the past three years.

“Without the increase in Scratcher sales, we would not be discussing a record return this year,” Ahlm said.

Legislators voted to shore up the scholarship fund in 2014 with alcohol excise tax funds annually through fiscal year 2017 because lottery revenues couldn’t fully fund it anymore.

“We encourage lawmakers to find a balance that has a minimal effect on students,” said Joseph Cueto, the spokesman for the state’s higher education department. “There’s no doubt that if balanced and responsible reforms aren’t enacted, the scholarship will be affected.”

Most recently, UNM approved a tuition and fee increase that will boost the overall amount a student pays from $6,664 to about $6,950.

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