published Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Kyle: Use lottery surplus to send more to college

Sen. Jim Kyle

What would you do if you won the lottery?

Some of you might quit your job, buy a bigger house or share the winnings with your family.

It’s fun to think about, but for a lot of Tennesseans, winning the lottery means something entirely different. It means the opportunity of a lifetime to get a college education.

Gov. Bill Haslam has been talking a lot lately about the number of Tennesseans who have that opportunity. With his “Drive to 55” program, he’s challenged us to increase postsecondary degree attainment from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.

That means 494,000 more Tennesseans need to earn a technical certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in the next 12 years.

I applaud the governor for making this one of his top goals for the state. Despite an 8.5 percent unemployment rate statewide, CEOs say they have open jobs that they can’t fill.

They need more people to win the lottery.

The Tennessee Lottery currently has a reserve fund approaching $400 million. Tennesseans have bought more than $10 billion in tickets, on the slim chance of a cash prize and a sure bet to contribute to someone’s college education. That $10 billion covers lottery winners, commissions to retailers and the administrative costs of running the lottery.

State leaders from both parties deserve credit for managing our lottery fund well. There should always be a healthy reserve so that we can meet our scholarship obligations each year. At $400 million in reserve, with so much on the line for employers struggling to fill jobs, state leaders would be derelict in our duty not to use a portion of that reserve to help more people go to college.

The state can afford for more people to win the lottery.

Haslam continues to tour the state to talk about meeting the Drive to 55 challenge. As that conversation continues, we must talk about ways we can use the lottery surplus to get there.

According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, we have an estimated 10,000 Tennesseans who are a year or less away from completing college and starting a new career. It’s not always the cost of tuition that makes college degrees unattainable; it’s the cost of putting a life on hold to take classes and still support a family.

We need more of those families to win the lottery. Here’s how we can do it:

An incentive program that pays workers to go back to school and pays again upon college completion could provide individuals in the workforce with the means and motivation to return to school.

Scholarships granted on a first-come, first-served basis to attend Western Governors University, a new online degree program that serves working adults, could make a second career possible for more Tennesseans.

An expansion of the Wilder-Naifeh grant program could make it easier for workers to earn technical certificates. The program uses lottery funds for working adults who want to learn a trade. It was available to only 9,900 adults this year, but with $400 million in our reserve, doesn’t it make sense to consider expanding that investment in our workforce?

Those are just a few possibilities to give our existing workforce a chance to pursue a second career. I’m sure the governor has additional ideas. I encourage him to present them, just as state Sens. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, and Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, have brought forth plans to use the lottery to help veterans earn degrees or to allow more undergraduates to earn double majors.

By investing in higher education — whether making college more affordable or giving people a second chance at a better-paying job — we create more lottery winners.

When they win the lottery, we all win the lottery.

Jim Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, is minority leader of the Tennessee Senate. Contact him at sen.jim.kyle@capitol.tn.gov or 615-741-4167, or write to him at 309 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0028.

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