Observers say ratcheting up eligibility standards hurts some students
By Mychal Miltenberger
Albuquerque, N.M.—The New Mexico Legislature may have bolstered its under-funded Lottery Scholarship for students, but observers say it is only a temporary fix.
A debate still looms over how to divide the future scholarship pie and advocacy groups say they hope to keep the criteria friendly toward the poor and disenfranchised.
“This battle and this discussion is not over,” said Paul Gessing, President of the Rio Grande Foundation. “The legislature — quote, unquote — solved the issue for only a couple of years.”
"This battle and this discussion is not over." -- Paul Gessing
The Financial Scoop
The scholarship program has a money problem.
According to the New Mexico Lottery’s 2013 fiscal report, net lottery ticket sales totaled $141.8 million, producing $43.7 million for the scholarship program.
Yet, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, the program is expected to give out around $67 million in tuition this year. In other words, the program can’t keep up with the cost of scholarships.
Although net lottery ticket sales saw a six percent increase from 2012, the system will have to rely on outside revenue going forward.
Under Senate Bill 347, the lottery scholarship is slated to receive around $19 million annually from the liquor excise tax, beginning in FY 2016 and continuing in FY 2017.
Even with this recent legislation, full tuition will no longer be covered, as lottery students will receive only what is available in the fund and not necessarily what they need to cover all costs.
With fewer lottery funds available, lawmakers need to come up with new measures, by which they decide who receives the scholarship – a contentious issue because it will also determine who does not qualify for money.
Key Points of Contention
While the majority of proposals at the legislative session included a greater emphasis on academic merit as an eligibility requirement, some advocates say they believe this method is not the ideal way to make the system more efficient.
Currently the lottery scholarship requires student recipients complete at least twelve credit hours per semester, while maintaining a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 or better.
Gessing said the majority of proposals at the legislative session included a GPA eligibility increase to 2.75. Gessing said he believes that by randomly raising the GPA the state would be failing to take into account the preferred outcomes of higher education.
“I don’t think that just arbitrarily raising the grade point average is the way to fix the system,” Gessing said.
“The issue with blanket GPA increases is that there is wide diversity of what a letter grade means. An A average in general studies is a lot different than someone who is studying physics or engineering at New Mexico Tech and struggling to make a 2.5 average.”
The Legislative Education Study Committee’s report on the lottery scholarship estimated that raising the GPA from 2.5 to 2.75 among lottery students at New Mexico State University in the fall 2010, would have resulted in 40 percent of students failing to maintain the scholarship.
Meanwhile, advocates say the push for higher academic criteria will have an adverse impact on working class students.
"It is going to widen the achievement gap. That’s all it is going to do." --Virginia Necochea
As part of SB 347, the minimum hours requirement for lottery students will be increased from 12 credit hours to 15, beginning this fall.
Graduate student and leader of the New Mexico Coalition for Equity and Justice, Virginia Necochea says the increase in minimum hours will affect working class students disproportionately.
“It is definitely going to have an impact, especially on working class families,” Necochea said.
“Before they could take four classes and transition in, now they are going to have to come up with five classes, which is setting these students up for even greater failure. It is going to widen the achievement gap. That’s all it is going to do.”
Necochea said that working-class students already struggle with the current requirement of 12 hours because many of these students also have to manage family obligations and off campus jobs.
“A lot of these students go in already having families and having to work, and they are not working on-campus jobs either. They are working at Church’s Chicken or their local market or Laundromat, just to make ends meet and then they struggle in that transition into college and eventually lose the scholarship,” Necochea said.
In fact, according to the New Mexico Higher Education Department the rise in minimum credit hours will significantly impact students in the lower third income bracket, which is defined by a family income of $39K or less.
In the Legislative Education Study Committee’s report, 73 percent of NMSU lottery students that fall within third income bracket, were taking under 15 credit hours.
Further, the New Mexico Higher Education Department also states that the increase in minimum hours will have a greater impact than a GPA increase on all students, regardless of their income bracket.
According to the committees study, 57 percent of lottery students at NMSU in the fall of 2010 were enrolled in less than 15 credit hours.
Gessing says that in order for the system to become more viable, a greater emphasis needs to be place on prioritization of the now limited amount of funds available.
“You don’t necessarily want to encourage or create a bunch of students, who are not in a major that is not going to serve them in getting a job in the future,” said Gessing. “It is not the governments job to put hindrances in their way but this is a limited pool of money, with a limited means of distribution so I do think prioritization of majors, which are more difficult, challenging and potentially economically necessary, is reasonable.”
Gessing also said it is crucial to the lottery system going forward for students to pick the educational institution that suits their needs, despite the incentive of four-year college that the lottery offers.
“There is a lot of students out there who would be better served in a vocational or trade school at CNM or some other institute like that,” Gessing said.
“But they say four-year college is paid for so I will just go ahead and do that, even though it might not be the one that fits their needs best.”
UNM senior, Phillip Archuleta is one of the many students who, even with the current requirements was unable to make the transition into college and lost the scholarship as a result.
“When I first came into college I was working two jobs,” Archuleta said. “It was just really difficult to learn what college was all about while also having to work so much. The new requirement of 15 credit hours, would have been even more of a problem for me.”
Although he lost the scholarship, Archuleta said that attending college through the lottery gave him an opportunity that he would not have never had otherwise.
“I grew up associating with gangs and never thought I would go to college until one of my high school teachers told me about the lottery scholarship,” Archuleta said.
“But even though I didn’t hold on to it, attending college that first year gave me a taste of college and I realized that getting a college education is what I wanted to do.”
Current ASUNM senator and president elect, Rachel Williams said in meeting with students, the main concern they have brought up is the increase in minimum credit hours.
“There is a very vocal population on campus that believes that changing the credit hour requirement to 15 hours is moving it toward being more merit based,” Williams said.
“They believe the lottery scholarship should continue to be a resource for first generation students and students without other means. Their main mission is to see UNM remain an institution that is equal access.”
Advocates say the debate over the future of the lottery scholarship will only intensify over the next two years and the impact of the increase in minimum hours will yield results on what is the best solution for the Lottery Scholarship going forward.
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Mychal Miltenberger is a journalism student at the University of New Mexico. He also works as a reporter for the Daily Lobo. Find Mychal on LinkedIn: