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New law puts lottery scholarship in better shape

October 2, 2014

By Jason Harper / Guest column
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Wednesday, October 1, 2014 at 5:55 pm in the Albuquerque Journal Observer Opinion

“What happened to the Lottery Scholarship?” I hear this nearly everywhere I go, and for good reason. The Lottery Scholarship is a huge help to families, as they work to cover the ever-increasing cost of a college education.

In a public forum last year, folks voiced their concerns to Sen. Craig Brandt and Reps. Tim Lewis, Paul Pacheco and me about the dwindling Lottery Scholarship funds.

I know first-hand how important that financial help is. Years ago, my wife, Mary, couldn’t have completed her degree without it. I knew I had to figure out a way to keep these funds for both my kids and yours.

But how to do that? Increase the eligibility requirements? Raise the GPA requirement? Make it income-based?

It quickly became clear that these were merely band-aids. Even if implemented, we calculated that in just a few short years, we would be back in the same leaky boat because of the real problem: rising tuition costs.

Tuition soars

Tuition costs at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and New Mexico Tech have nearly tripled — yes, tripled— in just 14 years. Meanwhile, lottery sales have remained flat. Last year the fund owed $67 million in tuition, but had only $42 million in lottery sales.

The hard truth is that lottery sales can no longer pay 100 percent of tuition. The only way to do that would be to raid taxpayer dollars to prop up the fund, and I believe it is inappropriate, and unsustainable, to use your limited tax dollars for that.

So to rescue the Lottery Scholarship, the four of us introduced House Bill 263, which was passed (Senate Bill 347, amended) and signed into law by Gov. Susana Martinez.

This new law permanently keeps the Lottery Scholarship afloat instead of kicking the can down the road. The scholarship will now be a flat award, based on whatever is available from lottery sales each year. And while in the future it won’t cover full tuition, it will cover a hefty chunk of it, making college affordable and within reach of working families.

How it works

In a nutshell, here’s how it now works:

• First, students attending four-year universities must take 15 credit hours a semester. This encourages them to finish on time, putting them on a path to get jobs sooner and reducing any student loans they may incur.

• Second, students receive the scholarship through their fourth semester at community college, and their eighth semester at a four-year university, again encouraging students to finish on time. Students can keep the scholarship if they transfer from a community college to a four-year university, again through their eighth semester.

• Third, students are treated equally instead of giving more funds to some and less to others (which was a fatal flaw in alternate proposals).

• Fourth, the college GPA requirement remains an attainable 2.5.

• And finally, the scholarship is weaned off your tax dollars, keeping it safe and self-sustaining.

Put in perspective

While these changes may seem challenging, let’s put it in perspective. Seven other states have a lottery-based scholarship, and none of them pays 100 percent tuition. On average, they pay only about half of tuition and fees (aascu.org/policy/publications/policy-matters/StateLotteryScholarships.pdf). We’re in much better shape than that.

You spoke up, and we listened. After all, we work for you — not for ourselves, nor for any political party. Our doors are always open to you, and together we’ll build a better New Mexico.

(Jason Harper is the state representative for House District 57 in Rio Rancho.)