People tend to think of scholarships as rewards, but they are really investments. Arkansas provides students with the means to go to college, and in return it hopes to get a more productive, wealth-creating member of society.
That being the case, it may be time for the state look at the return it is getting with the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery.
This past year, Arkansas awarded Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships worth $4,500 a year to eligible students attending four-year schools, and $2,250 to those attending two-year schools.
The important word here is "eligible." To receive the scholarship, graduating high school seniors must have scored a 19 on their ACT or maintained a 2.5 grade point average in high school. To keep the scholarship, they must maintain a 2.5 in college.
That means the state requires not even a "B" average in high school for a student to receive the scholarship, even though that student has not yet proven capable of college work. Meanwhile, it stops supporting a senior in college who is maintaining a respectable 2.4 grade point average, even if that senior is majoring in a difficult subject such as engineering.
Even those of us who don’t buy lottery tickets invest a lot of tax dollars to support the state’s colleges and universities. Looking at this as investors, which of those two students is most likely to provide a good return? The high school "C" student who still has far to go to earn a college degree, or the college "C" student who has proven capable of college coursework and is almost ready to enter the work force?
In other words, does Arkansas want students merely to attend college for a year, or does it want them to graduate with a degree and work skills?
So far, the answer has been we just want students to go and then we hope they stay, which is more like gambling than investing. More than 40 percent of lottery scholarship recipients can’t keep it past the first year. That’s not all money down the drain, but a lot of it is.
Meanwhile, the lottery has been attracting fewer "investors" itself. This year, it’s expected to raise $90 million for scholarships after raising $97 million last year. It seems that, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, Arkansans are figuring out that there’s a reason that "winning the lottery" and "being struck by lightning" are both cliches that start off with "about as likely as."
To deal with the resulting shortfall, a legislative committee recently recommended that lottery scholarships be reduced during the 2013-14 school year to $3,300 for students attending four-year schools and $1,650 for those attending two-year schools.
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, earlier had suggested a tiered approach where students receive $2,000 as college freshmen and then receive an additional $1,000 each succeeding year, so that by the time they are seniors – and therefore very likely to start paying dividends on Arkansas’ investment in them – they are receiving $5,000 per year.
Key, who also will chair the Senate Education Committee when the Legislature meets in January, now says that’s one of many options he would consider.
Let’s hope that the rest of the Legislature does as well. Arkansas needs more college graduates, which means it must try to get a better return on the money it invests in college students. Anything less is too much like gambling.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org