LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas House on Monday approved new award amounts for higher-education scholarships, making changes to the lottery-funded program that proponents say are needed to keep it solvent but others have argued would limit students' ability to afford college.
Lawmakers voted 69-21 to pass a measure that would create a tiered structure of awards that starts 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 proposal also increases from $12 million to $16 million the aggregate amount of scholarships that the state can fund for nontraditional students — those who did not enroll in college immediately following high school.
The measure now moves to the Senate's education committee. If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the changes would take effect for next school year. The 32,829 students already in the scholarship program will continue to receive funding at the existing levels, according to Shane Broadway, the state's Interim Higher Education Director.
Broadway said the Department of Higher Education had not yet taken a position on the proposed changes. Gov. Mike Beebe is still reviewing the financial projections associated with the program, spokesman Matt DeCample said.
Supporters of the proposal said lottery funding can't sustain the current payout of $4,500 per year for university students and $2,250 for community college students. The changes, they argued, are needed to ensure the program stays in the black.
"It puts us on a path to sustainability within the lottery program so that we don't have to keep going back every two years and lowering these amounts because I don't think that's fair to the students and parents," said Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, the sponsor of the proposal.
Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, said the new tiered structure would also create a better set of incentives for students to complete their degrees.
"What we're experience in the current program are people that start — they go to the first year, and then many of those folks don't complete any more than that," he said. "We've burned off a lot of money in an ineffective way."
Opponents of the measure said they're worried the tiered structure would limit first-year students' ability to afford the cost of a four-year university, undermining the program's goal of increasing Arkansas' relatively low percentage of people who hold bachelor's degrees.
"Changing that scholarship amount would drastically impact middle income kids as fair as their choice to attend a four-year university," said Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville. He also said the proposed changes had already been rejected by Arkansas Lottery Commission's Legislative Oversight Committee, which he co-chairs.
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, said he was concerned the changes would disproportionately impact minority students.
"It's clearly going to have a racial impact," Walker said after Monday's vote. "The higher up in the educational levels you go, the more disparate the situation becomes. We know based on history that more black people drop out of high school than white students and then fewer of those students go to college, where even fewer of the black students remain."
Gillam, the bill's sponsor, said on the House floor that such a study could be performed before the bill is considered in the Senate.