The Senate Education Committee unanimously passed a bill that would decouple lottery scholarship awards from tuition costs — a move that would guarantee all students a specific amount of annual tuition based on the type of college they attend.
“The idea behind this is truly that students and parents will know each year what the scholarship amount is,” said Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, who sponsors the bill. That way, he told committee members, families can better prepare for other forms of financial aid to pay for tuition costs.
Soules’ bill is one of several making their way through the Legislature in an effort to sustain the Legislative Lottery Scholarship Program that has been in place for more than 20 years. The scholarship, funded by lottery ticket sales, had for years covered 100 percent of an eligible New Mexico student’s college tuition.
But a dip in lottery revenues, coupled with tuition increases, has diminished the scholarship fund in the past few years to the point that it now only covers 60 percent of tuition.
Though Soules’ bill does not make college more affordable for New Mexicans, it does at least ensure that students can count on a certain amount every year while balancing out the struggling lottery scholarship fund.
Republican and Democrats alike voiced support for the bill during Monday’s committee hearing, but not every member of the committee was happy with it. Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, told Soules that his proposal is “a hard bill to swallow … at one time tuition was [covered] 100 percent. With this bill it is slightly less than 50 [percent].”
Stewart did not cast a vote on the bill because she left the hearing room while it was still being discussed.
The bill ensures students attending one of the state’s research institutions — including The University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University — would receive $1,400 per semester. Students attending a comprehensive institution, such as New Mexico Highlands University or Northern New Mexico College — would receive $950 per semester. And students attending any of the state’s community colleges would receive $350 a semester.
The bill also gives the Secretary of Higher Education leeway to raise or lower that base amount if lottery ticket revenues go up or down.
The lottery has provided around $40 million a year to scholarships through the program for years. In 2016, that figure was more than $46 million — a record high — but last year it was closer to $38 million.
Ricardo Rel, assistant vice president of government affairs for New Mexico State University, presented the bill to legislators along with Soules. Rel said the base tuition figures Soules provided are grounded in the belief that lottery ticket revenue will be around the $38 million mark again. If sales top that estimated amount he said, the higher education department can in turn increase scholarship awards.
Secretary of Higher Education Barbara Damron told the committee her department supports the bill. Several college presidents, as well as the presidents of several student governing councils, also voiced support. No one at the hearing spoke in opposition to it.
The bill next goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.