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VOL. 35 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 26, 2011




Proposal would end ACT-only path to scholarships

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NASHVILLE (AP) — A special legislative panel is considering a proposal that would end high school graduates' ability to qualify for Tennessee lottery scholarships through their ACT scores alone.

The Senate Lottery Stabilization Task Force has been assigned by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville to find ways to stem losses in the scholarship fund's reserves.

"Our ultimate goal is to reverse the negative trajectory of the program," Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, said at the panel's first meeting Monday.

Students must currently earn either a 3.0 grade point average or score a 21 on their ACT to qualify for a scholarship worth $4,000 at four-year schools.

David Wright, who heads the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's policy and planning division, told the panel that without any changes, the lottery's reserves would be depleted to the statutory minimum of $50 million by 2024.

About 15 percent of lottery scholarships are awarded to students who qualify based on their ACT scores but did not average a B in high school, Wright said. Of those, only one in five do well enough their first year in college to retain their scholarships.

Wright said ending the ACT-only path would be projected to save $24 million a year.

Republican Sen. Bo Watson of Hixson expressed reservations about doing away with the ACT scores.

"GPA is often measured by the rigor of the institution attended," Watson said. "A 3.0 at one instruction is dramatically different than a 3.0 at another institution," he said.

Rich Rhoda, THEC's executive director, said the ACT proposal was developed with the recognition that students who did not achieve the minimum grade point average "as a group also don't complete college."

Rhoda said when the scholarship program was being after voters approved a state lottery nearly a decade ago, officials sought to require students meet both the ACT and grade point average thresholds to qualify.

"That way it would kind of be a counterbalance of the validity of one or the other," Rhoda said after the meeting. "But the Legislature did not go along with that."

Rhoda said a renewed effort to tie the two qualification standards together might be acceptable if it only applies universities but not to community colleges.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis questioned the urgency of efforts to dial back scholarships while the program still has $373 million in reserves, or 31 percent of the lottery's revenues. That rate is far higher than the lottery programs in neighboring states like Virginia, Georgia or Missouri, or of leading corporations in the state, he said.

"Are our reserves in danger, or are we over-reserving?" he asked.

Kyle was dismissive of arguments that the scholarship program benefits from the interest earned off the cash reserves.

"This is like not feeding your infant child because you're saving up to buy them a car when they turn 16," Kyle said.

"People need jobs today, people need an education today," he said. "We need to invest these lottery funds into the people of Tennessee and make them available to people who need a post-secondary education today."

The House Education Committee this year advanced a proposal by Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, to gradually raise both requirements. The Senate panel's plan is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 1.

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