State should do better than ‘rainy-day funds’ for scholarships


The Arkansas Department of Higher Education will use $1.6 million of the state’s “rainy-day funds” to pay for a larger-than-usual number of Governor’s Distinguished Scholarships this year.

What a shame it is that our state government must resort to using emergency funds to help some of our best and brightest high school graduates go to college. You’d think that investing in higher education would get a higher priority.

To be fair, let’s acknowledge that a record 531 students qualified for these scholarships, which have high standards — a 32 composite score on the ACT or a score of 1,410 on the SAT and a 3.5 cumulative grade average in high school. Each scholarship pays up to $10,000 per year for a maximum of four years at any approved Arkansas college or university.

The average ACT score is about 21, while 36 is perfect so recipients of these scholarships are exceptional students, the kind we’d like to keep in Arkansas.

A $10,000 grant is not as good as an athletic scholarship, but it covers all tuition and mandatory fees, which will run as high as $8,209 (University of Arkansas at Fayetteville) this coming academic year, with at least some left over for room and board.

Normally, the state budgets enough money for 300 Governor’s Distinguished Scholars so the inordinate number of qualifiers this year created a long waiting list. However, the Legislative Council in April approved a request from Gov. Mike Beebe to transfer up to $2 million in rainy-day funds to cover the extra scholarships. Of the 531 who qualified, 466 have accepted the grants.

ADHE receives about $12 million a year for this program, and department Director Shane Broadway said he will ask the Legislature to add $1.6 million more next year so the extra qualifiers can keep their scholarships. He also said the program is encouraging more students to stay in the state for their college educations.

All this is a consequence of the state, albeit by court edict, placing more emphasis on providing a high-quality public education to its children. We need to do the same for higher education. However, this isn’t happening yet.

During a recent debate involving the candidates for governor at an Arkansas Press Association convention, higher education was barely mentioned. The mention had more to do with the way the state’s scholarship lottery is being managed than with state-supported colleges and universities.

In fact, that issue has become so important for our legislators that they insisted on including it in a special July session called specifically to deal with prison overcrowding and the public school employees’ health insurance system. The lawmakers weren’t concerned about the lottery coming up short again on funds for scholarships but rather with stifling a proposal by lottery officials to add video monitor games to their arsenal of fund-raising gimmicks, opposed by special interests at Oaklawn and Southland race tracks.

Lawmakers ought to be concerned instead with the dwindling flow of lottery dollars into the state’s Academic Challenge Scholarship program.

Like most lotteries, it did well in the beginning. The novelty caused many Arkansans to take a chance on winning their fortunes. For its first, partial year the lottery pumped $82 million into the state scholarship program. The Legislature eagerly approved $5,000 scholarships for students going to four-year colleges and $2,500 grants for those going to two-year colleges.

More than 25,000 students got financial help, and many of them would not have been able to go to college without it.

For the 2011-12 year the lottery produced $94.2 million for scholarships, and more than 30,000 students benefitted.

Unfortunately, the revenue then started dwindling, and the Legislature began reducing the grant amounts, most recently to a tiered approach that gives only $2,000 to an incoming freshman.

Several weeks ago Lottery Director Bishop Woosley lowered this year’s forecast for scholarship proceeds to $80.5 million.

All around, we hear choruses of “I told you so” about the evils and folly of using a lottery for higher education. What we don’t hear is anybody talking about how the state can make up the difference in the scholarship program.

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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.