Painful cuts to Tennessee's lottery scholarships

Painful cuts to Tennessee's lottery scholarships

December 2nd, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

It's all too easy for government to spend lots of money and offer lots of benefits when times are good. But it's much harder to pull back on that spending and on those benefits when times get tough and the money isn't there.

That's the painful lesson that Tennessee is learning with its lottery-funded college scholarships.

The lottery scholarship program faces a multimillion-dollar deficit, because revenue has been insufficient.

The current $8 million deficit is projected to grow to $20 million within 10 years if the program isn't revised.

So Tennessee is having to look for ways to trim scholarship spending, to keep the program solvent over the long term.

Now, the state Senate's bipartisan Lottery Stabilization Task Force has come up with a plan that may not be very popular with college students and their parents but that appears to be necessary to salvage the program.

At present, high school graduates can get a $4,000 scholarship if they earn either a 3.0 grade-point average or a 21 on the ACT.

But under the task force's recommendation, high schoolers would have to achieve both a 3.0 GPA and a 21 on the ACT to be eligible for the full $4,000 amount. Those who meet only one standard or the other would get only 50 percent: $2,000. Students who maintain a solid GPA once they get to college could move up to the full $4,000 amount by their junior year in college.

The changes would save $13 million in the first year they were implemented and about $17 million per year after that. They could reduce the number of high school graduates getting the scholarships by about a fifth.

The changes would not take place for four more years, to give rising students and their parents time to prepare for the tougher standards.

But we doubt that will make the reductions in lottery scholarships any more popular if they are approved when the General Assembly convenes in January.

States are often under pressure to begin offering a particular benefit, but that is nothing compared with the pressure they face when they start to rein in a benefit to which their residents have become accustomed.

Tennessee has little choice at this point but to pull back on the lottery scholarships in order to keep the program above water for the long term.

But even though the state has made the decision to fund scholarships through the vice of gambling, tighter controls should have been placed on the spending of lottery revenue early on. That would have spared students and parents the disappointment of expecting a level of scholarship funds that soon may no longer be available.