Arkansas Lawmakers Approve Lottery Scholarship Changes

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 5:54 pm  

LITTLE ROCK - An overhaul of the Arkansas Lottery-funded college scholarship program was given final approval by lawmakers Monday, creating a system in which award amounts increase each year for students at four-year schools.

The Arkansas Senate approved by a 34-0 vote changes to the scholarship program. Gov. Mike Beebe plans to sign them into law, his office said.

The measure creates tiered scholarships that start at $2,000 for freshmen at four-year colleges. The award would then increase by $1,000 each year, maxing out at $5,000 for seniors. Students who are enrolled full-time at two-year colleges would be eligible for a $2,000 scholarship each year.

The scholarship program currently pays $4,500 per year for university students and $2,250 for community college students.

Sen. Johnny Key said the changes are needed to give stability to a scholarship program that lawmakers have already had to cut once since it was set up in 2010. Arkansas voters approved the lottery to fund college scholarships in 2008. The nearly 33,000 students already receiving lottery-funded scholarships will continue to receive funding at the existing levels.

Lawmakers two years ago cut the four-year scholarship amounts by $500 and the two-year amounts by $250.

"I think it's a long-run positive step forward for students and for the scholarship program itself," Key, R-Mountain Home, said after the Senate approved the measures. "It will relieve us of our cash flow issue that we would be fighting every year if we didn't do this."

But former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, the chief backer of the amendment that created the lottery, says the changes undermine the intent of the scholarship program by cutting the award amounts for incoming freshmen.

"I think a better approach would have been to recognize that the scholarship program is working and therefore find additional resources to keep the scholarship support where it was," said Halter, a Democrat who is running for governor.

The proposal passed with no debate in the Senate, which approved an identical version the bill earlier Monday on a 31-2 vote.

Sen. Bruce Maloch, who voted against the Senate version of the scholarship changes, said he was worried it was deter students from four-year schools by cutting the amount of scholarships for incoming freshmen at those institutions by $2,500.

"I think it could serve as steering students to a two-year," said Maloch, D-Magnolia. "Maybe that won't happen too much, but (two-year scholarships) were cut $250 and four years were cut $2,500 on a first year. A kid that wants to go to a four year that doesn't have the resources could really be impacted."

A spokesman for Beebe said the governor was comfortable with the bill partly because it won't affect the students currently in the program.

"The key piece to him is that the students in the pipeline now won't have their scholarships affected," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said. "He's said from the get-go, once they're in school, you shouldn't go back on what you promised them they would get."

The proposal also increases from $12 million to $16 million the aggregate amount of scholarships the state can fund for nontraditional students - those who did not enroll in college immediately following high school.

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