Most of the news coverage associated with the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery focuses on the least likely outcome.
In a Google News search of the subject by name, nine of the 10 returned results on the first page are headlined by winning tickets, winners themselves or ticket sales.
One woman wins $2 million lottery … Little Rock man wins $1 million scratch-off ticket … instant-ticket record sales in January …
Clicking through the first five pages of search results, the word “student”—the supposed beneficiary of all this—appears in only one of the 50 total headlines. It’s crowded out by more giddy and gaudy story headers that appeal to high-roller instincts: Sky-high jackpots … Sales Keep Soaring … Unique Ways to Win … This is Winning! New Slogan …
We shouldn’t be surprised that a numbers racket, even one sold on noble purposes and promises, peddles foremost the dream of instant treasure.
Indeed, if all you know of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery is what you read in the news, you’d have no idea of how successful the organization is or isn’t with regard to its mission of funding higher education.
Lost amid the convoluted calculus of prizes, retailer commissions, tax revenue, economic impact and even net proceeds to scholarships is any sort of big-picture or high-level analysis of effect over time on the various measures of collegiate progress. And when it comes to assessing our state’s performance in higher education, the numbers don’t add up well at all.
For starters, we the people were originally asked back in 2008 to sell our souls and amend the state Constitution in exchange for $105 million in scholarship funding, dispensed to students at the rate of $5,000 for each incoming freshman’s first year and the next three at four-year institutions.
The lottery scholarship proceeds have never gotten within $10 million of that goal. And instead of $5,000 as pledged, the first-year amount has been slashed by 80 percent, and the four-year total cut by 30 percent.
The measly $500 per semester our record-setting lottery is providing freshmen pales even more against warned-against escalation of college costs.
With nearly a decade of lottery decadence at play on our college landscape, there’s enough data to draw reasonable conclusions. In other states where lotteries to fund education had been approved, specifically South Carolina, colleges and universities saw opportunity in games of chance and tuition spiked to such a degree that the lottery wound up making higher education more expensive.
Cost increases here have been more modest (we’re a poorer state) but still significant, especially in light of shrinking scholarship awards.
At the largest public university, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, in-state tuition has grown by 28 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars (real dollar costs) since the lottery was approved. Others where tuition hikes exceed that include Southern Arkansas University (31 percent), UA Fort Smith (41 percent) and UA Pine Bluff (46 percent).
At private institutions, where tuition was already much higher, similar inflation-adjusted increases have occurred in the era of lottery scholarships. At Hendrix College, tuition is up 53 percent since lottery scholarships were approved. In 2008, a $5,000 freshman scholarship would have funded 17 percent of tuition there. Today, the $1,000 amount covers only 2 percent.
Even at more affordable state schools, the double-whammy of higher costs and lower scholarships is a demonstrable detriment. At UA Fayetteville, the original $5,000 figure represented two-thirds of freshman tuition. Today, the reneged-on sum of $1,000 is only 11 percent of tuition, and not even 5 percent when including room and board.
It’s bad enough that lottery riches were waved in our faces as a way to make college truly affordable, only to be scaled back to become irrelevant in many cost-of-attendance cases. What’s worse is that luring several billion dollars from citizens’ pockets hasn’t moved important needles like college graduation or enrollment rates.
Jefferson County, home to UA Pine Bluff, ranks 11th in population but was second in lottery sales in January (Pulaski County was first), ahead of more populous and prosperous counties like Benton, Craighead and Washington.
But UAPB’s four-year graduation rate is an abysmal 5.6 percent, which is 75 percent lower than the state average. Even using the more forgiving six-year grad-rate average, Arkansas is still 49th in the nation.
Clearly, the math’s awry.
And not just in the community where people spend more funding lottery scholarships, and university costs are rising faster, yet only six students out of 100 earn a degree in four years.
In all lotteries, the odds are stacked against players. But scholarships should be tilted in students’ favor, and we ought to restore the $5,000 on a merit basis for high school applicants with excellent grades.
Kids with 4.0 GPAs are unlikely to become college dropouts. They are hard-studying students who earned the original declared amount.
More importantly, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery owes them what was promised in the first place.
If we can live with record lottery sales while not keeping our word to the state’s best and brightest high school graduates, we deserve snake eyes.