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Senator Hickey Attempts to Bring Lottery Scholarships in Line with Reality

Updated: Apr 13

Thanks to Sen. Jimmy Hickey, who continues to demonstrate leadership on state lottery issues, one of the questions legislators will consider during the 2015 session will be whether to increase GPA and ACT score requirements for incoming college seniors to receive the Arkansas Academic Challenge (Lottery) Scholarship. From John Lyon at Arkansas News:

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, has filed SB 3 and SB 5, which propose changing the way lottery-funded scholarships are awarded in an effort to save money in the face of declining lottery revenue.Under the proposal, a student would be required to have at least a 3.25 grade point average and score at least a 22 on the ACT to be eligible to receive a lottery-funded scholarship at the start of the school year. A student who did not meet those requirements but had at least a 2.5 GPA and an ACT score of 19 would not receive the scholarship until after successfully completing the freshman year and enrolling as a sophomore. “The bill will help cash flow by saving the $2,000 for each student that’s not completing the qualifications of the program in the first year,” Hickey said earlier this month.

Opposition to Hickey’s merit-based proposal has already surfaced from the usual suspects. Max Brantley has said these changes would turn the lottery into a “middle-class entitlement program.” Unfortunately, the lottery scholarship program in its current form is already a middle-class entitlement program. Increasing GPA and ACT requirements for graduating high school seniors, however, makes the program more sustainable and meritocratic. After all, it’s no surprise that students with higher ACT scores are more likely to graduate from college than those with lower ACT scores. Hickey’s changes would require recipients to show at least a smidgen of academic aptitude before receiving scholarship money. Currently, students only have to have a 2.5 GPA and 19 ACT score to receive funding. By comparison, a 21 ACT score is what ACT officials say is “the minimum score students need to earn to have a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in a typical first-year college course.” In other words: under the current system, state government currently encourages students who have an ACT score significantly below 21 to pursue a college education, even when statistics show that there are much better choices available to that cohort — often including, for example, gainful employment. The lottery scholarship program is a classic case of a government program that provides counterproductive incentives and therefore harms people. Notably, under Hickey’s proposal, even if a student can’t meet the proposed 3.25 GPA and 22 ACT score requirement, all that would be required of him/her would be completing freshman year before being able to receive the scholarship. Hickey’s proposed changes are unlikely to screen out students who will benefit from a college education. If Arkansas is going to continue with a lottery system whose traditional patrons are predominantly minorities and/or low-income to help fund higher education, that funding might as well go to students who’ve shown some degree of academic ability — as demonstrated by evidentiary requirements like a 3.25 GPA and a 22 ACT score. Senator Hickey deserves praise for his attempt to ensure that taxpayer money goes to appropriate use. Although it is unfashionable to say such things, higher education is not for everyone. At some point, the public is entitled to some degree of basic respect: that respect implies that tuition subsidies should go to students who are, at the very least, academically average or better. One would think that this principle would be obvious, but so far it hasn’t been obvious to policymakers who apparently want to encourage as many people as possible to go to college. The downside to such a perspective is that it is likely to create pressures that will turn college in Arkansas into four more years of high school. P.S.: In 2013, the last time the Legislature made changes to the scholarship lottery program, some Arkansas colleges — like Lyon — actually froze tuition! Truly, it’s amazing what higher ed administrators will do, once they’re given the hint that taxpayer subsidies can’t be increased year after year.

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