Tennessee lawmakers right to seek to tighten lottery scholarship rules

Tennessee lawmakers right to seek to tighten lottery scholarship rules

March 11th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Tennessee lawmakers should not back down from their plan to tighten up rules for lottery-funded scholarships.

It has been shown clearly that the existing rules are squandering vast amounts of money. They also do not provide enough incentive for high school students to work hard in order to earn the scholarships, which sets students up for failure in college. Those are excellent reasons to revamp the rules.

The Times Free Press reported recently that about half of the freshmen who get lottery scholarships to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga lose the scholarships by the end of their first year. Why? Because they do not keep up their grades once they are at UTC. The loss of the scholarships puts many students on a path to leaving college altogether.

That does the students no good, and it wastes state lottery dollars that might otherwise be put to better use or be used to shore up the program's long-term finances.

If any other state program were found to be spending so much money unproductively, there would justifiably be an outcry for it to be overhauled.

Yet a commonsense legislative attempt to strengthen the standards that students must meet to receive the full $4,000 annual amount of the lottery scholarship is facing opposition.

Under existing rules, high school graduates headed to four-year colleges can get the full $4,000 with either a 3.0 grade point average or a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam.

The legislation would require students to meet both of those criteria to get the full amount. Meeting only one of the criteria means they would get only $2,000.

But Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and some other lawmakers object to tighter lottery scholarship rules.

Berke is correct in his assessment that a college education is "one of the most important economic drivers we have."

But spending lottery revenue on high numbers of students who quickly lose their eligibility for the scholarships because of poor grades -- and then drop out of college without a degree -- is hardly wise.

The simple fact is, high schoolers who have both a good GPA and a good ACT score -- rather than just one or the other -- are more likely to maintain their eligibility for the scholarships throughout their college years.

David Wright of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission pointed out in 2011 that of the students who get the full $4,000 based only on their ACT scores -- without having a reasonable GPA to match -- only 20 percent do well enough academically in college to keep the scholarships beyond their freshman year.

Those appalling figures represent a huge waste of money. So it is more than prudent to reserve the full scholarship amount for students who maintain a good GPA during high school and get a decent score on the ACT.

Berke is concerned that "The signal that we send to people in ninth, 10th and 11th grade is the wrong one when we cut scholarships."

To the contrary! Setting reasonable standards for the scholarships lets high schoolers know that if they expect to get state dollars to fund a college education that will improve their lifelong economic prospects, they need to put in some real effort early on so that they will be more likely to succeed once they get to college.

Making hard work in high school a condition of receiving the full $4,000 lottery scholarship creates an excellent incentive and is, in fact, just the right "signal" to send to young people.