Fund scholars, not dropouts

Posted on April 4, 2015. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Earlier this week the Arkansas Senate voted 27-2 to reduce the first-year amount of the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships from $2,000 to $1,000 starting with the 2016-17 school year.

The state lottery for college scholarships was sold to the electorate in 2008 on a promise of $5,000 per year for four years of college.

In the span of barely seven years, the state has now reneged on that to the tune of 80 percent for college freshmen.

The legislation increases the second year’s scholarship for four-year colleges to $4,000 from $3,000, and the junior and senior years remain $4,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Still, that total only delivers a 4-year total of $14,000 against a sales pitch of $20,000—a 30 percent reduction.

In any sort of private venue, that’d be considered a bait-and-switch proposition perpetrated on customers.

Even in the public sector, it’s a shamefully broken campaign promise, a failure to deliver what we were all told selling out to a lottery would provide: making college more affordable.

The first-year reduction is obviously an attempt to minimize the losses associated with students who fail to continue enrollment after their freshman year. The state loses less if it spends $1,000 on a freshman who drops out than $5,000.

Here in Arkansas, that’s a particular problem. The freshman retention rate at four-year public institutions in Arkansas is the fifth worst in the nation, according to most recent National Center for Education Statistics data.

Without a doubt, the past few years have seen a lot of college freshmen squander their lottery scholarship proceeds from a dwindling fund that can ill afford waste.

And there’s really no education cost more wasteful than buying one year’s worth of an unfinished college degree.

Confronted with shrinking wagering, it’s understandable that the Legislature is seeking to stretch lottery scholarship dollars, and making sure they’re applied effectively.

But cutting promised benefits by 30 percent—while public institution tuition costs are up a like amount since 2008, and private colleges even more—isn’t the right answer.

A piddling $500 per semester for a high school graduate looking at freshman year college costs up to 10, 15 or 20 times that much is a nonfactor for many students, and a slap in the face of voters who agreed to tie games of chance to giving students a better chance at a college degree.

It essentially punishes the best high school graduates, the ones with strong GPAs and ACT scores. They are the most likely to stay in and finish college–and in four years, not six.

Yet all that’s left for them from the state’s original commitment of a $5,000 first-year scholarship is 10 hundred-dollar bills.

There are few greater losses to the state than a strong college prospect who can’t attend because the state gambled on scholarship funding and lost.

A better alternative would be to focus on funding scholars instead of dropouts. The first meaning of the word “scholarship” is erudition or the act of learning achievement itself, literally the “status of a scholar.”

Why not offer two tiers of Academic Challenge Scholarships?

The first could be the basic version as approved and sent to the governor this week: A scaled back $14,000 4-year scholarship worth $1,000 the first year, $4,000 the second, $4,000 the third and $5,000 the fourth.

The second could be a new “scholarship-plus” version aimed at aiding high school students who have demonstrated, through classwork GPA achievement and an elevated ACT score, that they’ve got everything it takes for college—except maybe the money.

That scholarship-plus tier would restore the original $5,000 per year for a total $20,000 scholarship as originally promised to voters and students—with one important caveat: the extra $6,000 is considered a loan until the student finishes college, after which it is forgiven.

That way the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery could fulfill the pledge it was sold on for high school scholars.

Students who may not be sure college is for them can stick with the basic tier, and never have to worry about any repayment regardless of whether they wind up dropping out or not.

But those high school scholars who are driven and determined could roll the dice on the lottery scholarship-plus tier.

All they have to do is earn a degree to convert the loan portion to a post-facto scholarship.

It’s a low-risk proposition for the state because the deck is already stacked in its favor. High school scholars are likely to finish college anyway, if they can just get enough money together to go.

It’s a high-value proposition for students because it connects the dots in a working-world way for them: it provides additional opportunity with greater benefits based on their ability and discipline to perform.

Predicting gaming trends is probably folly at best, but a high school student that works and studies hard enough to get mostly A’s and B’s and also best the state average on the ACT is a pretty safe bet for college success, too.

We (and they) were promised $5,000 annually if voters approved a lottery. Let’s honor that promise.

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