published Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Tennessee lawmakers study options for lottery scholarships

  • photo
    David Gregory, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, asks a question during a Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011 meeting of the Senate Lottery Stabilization Task Force in Nashville, Tenn. The panel is looking for ways to stem losses in the reserves of the program that funds the state's lottery scholarships. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LUCAS L. JOHNSON II, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are considering ways to prevent the state's lottery scholarship program from going broke.

State officials say if the lottery scholarship program isn't changed, it could run out of money in a little over a decade. Most of the scenarios being discussed would cut the number of students eligible or how much money they get.

Members of the Lottery Stabilization Task Force met in Nashville on Wednesday and heard from representatives of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and a Tennessee Lottery official.

One option that lawmakers are strongly considering would reduce scholarship awards if students don't meet both the high school grade point average and ACT eligibility requirements for four-year schools. Right now, students must either earn a 3.0 GPA or score a 21 on their ACT to qualify for a scholarship worth $4,000 for each of the four years.

Under the proposal, students attending community colleges wouldn't be affected.

State Sen. Delores Gresham, who headed the task force and is also chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said lawmakers want to get more young people in school, but also "make the lottery scholarship program viable in the long term."

"This policy increases access and incentivizes academic achievement," said the Somerville Republican of the popular lottery proposal. "I think this might be the way for us to go."

Lottery chief financial officer Andy Davis said ideas are being considered to increase the amount of money going to lottery scholarships.

Some members of the task force said they'd like to see an additional $10 million go toward Tennessee Student Assistant Awards, which are used to help need-based students.

David Gregory, vice chancellor for the Tennessee Board of Regents and a task force member, said $50 million to $60 million is appropriated annually for the program, but he's noticed that the money seems to be running out faster in recent years.

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"In years past I can remember it running out in April," he said. "But because of the difficult economy, I think last year it ran out in February."

A recent Middle Tennessee State University poll shows a majority of Tennesseans want the lottery scholarship program to continue drawing on its reserves until after the economy improves. But Gresham doesn't think that's reliable.

"We have to do better than what we're doing," she said.

While lawmakers look for ways to preserve the lottery program for students to attend four-year institutions, they don't want them to overlook community colleges.

Gregory noted they're more economical and have undergone changes to help students. For instance, in August education officials announced a plan to allow students to more easily transfer their credits from two-year to four-year schools.

The Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee said they had created 50 guaranteed transfer paths. More than 4,500 students could transfer annually under the policy.

"I'm hoping going forward that the community colleges are going to be considered to be a more viable option for students than they have been in the past," Gregory said.

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