published Sunday, February 12th, 2012

Lottery scholarship funding struggle in Tennessee, Georgia

Both Tennessee and Georgia are facing serious challenges in continuing to provide scholarships funded by the states' lotteries.

Fortunately, some of the legislation being proposed in the two states with regard to the lottery is wise. But some is not.

In Tennessee, there is a painfully necessary plan to tighten up academic requirements related to the scholarships.

That plan was prompted by the fact that the cost of the scholarship program is running ahead of lottery revenue. While there has been some growth in lottery revenue lately, there is simply no guarantee that will continue. Tennessee has already had to dip into lottery reserves, and conservative lawmakers understandably want to take steps now to shore up the program to ensure it remains healthy.

So they want stricter rules on how students qualify for different levels of scholarship funds.

At present, Tennessee students can get the full $4,000 to attend a four-year college if they earned a minimum 3.0 grade point average in high school or scored at least a 21 on their ACT college entrance exams.

But under a current proposal in the General Assembly, students heading to four-year colleges would have to earn both a 3.0 GPA and a 21 on the ACT to get the full amount. Those who meet only one standard or the other would get only $2,000 in each of their first two years. However, by keeping up their grades the first two years of college, they would qualify for the full $4,000 by their junior year.

That plan makes sense for three key reasons:

* First, it would directly save the lottery scholarship program an estimated $13 million to $17 million per year.

* Second, students who meet only the GPA or the ACT requirement -- but not both -- are considerably more likely to drop out of college. That wastes scarce dollars for education and adds to the scholarship program's financial troubles.

* And third, students who get only $2,000 through the lottery scholarship program their first two years of college would have an incentive to work hard and maintain good grades so that they could double the amount they receive by their junior year.

But while Tennessee is looking at tightening standards for lottery scholarships, some Georgia lawmakers are going in the other direction.

One component of the Georgia lottery scholarship program is the Zell Miller Scholarship -- named for the popular former governor. Some Democrat lawmakers in Georgia want to remove the requirement that recipients of the Zell Miller Scholarship earn a minimum score on the SAT. Instead, they say, seniors who graduate in the top 3 percent of their class should qualify automatically.

The trouble with that approach is that not all schools are academically equal. The top 3 percent of graduates from a high school with low standards might not be nearly as prepared for college as the top 3 percent of graduates from a school with rigorous standards. The purpose of setting a minimum score on a standardized test for the scholarships is to provide a more "apples-to-apples" comparison of student achievement around the state.

Georgia lawmakers should not be loosening standards in a way that does nothing to enhance their lottery scholarship program's finances and gives scholarship money to students who may be less academically prepared than other students.

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