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Friday, November 28, 2014

Lottery funds at risk this semester

assistant-news@dailylobo.com
@ChloeHenson5

The upcoming state legislative session may determine how much some UNM students pay for school this semester.

According to an email sent out by the UNM Financial Aid Office, the New Mexico Higher Education Department believes “current available funds for the Legislative Lottery Scholarship may be insufficient to cover the spring 2014 semester.”

Brian Malone, director of the Student Financial Aid Office, said legislators at the state level will have to decide to cover the finances during the upcoming legislative session in order for students receiving the Lottery Scholarship to have their full tuition paid this semester.

“UNM’s administration and the people we spoke with in the legislature have indicated it’s a priority to get the money from the state,” he said. “There is a confidence that will happen. It’s not a guarantee, though, because it’s a legislative process.”

In an email sent to the Daily Lobo, Christopher Sanchez, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Higher Education Department, said legislators need to work for both a short-term and long-term solution to the problem of the Lottery’s insufficient funds.

“We remain hopeful that students will continue to receive support from the Legislative Lottery Scholarship,” he said. “For this to happen, however, our legislators must take swift action to find a solution that is financially responsible and sustainable for years to come.”

Sanchez said his department has shown legislators different scenarios for the scholarship in order to help them reach a decision.

“To inform legislators in their discussions, the Higher Education Department has provided them with 32 different solvency scenarios that are based on ideas from students, parents and lawmakers,” he said. “We encourage students to contact their respective legislators to urge them to act swiftly and decisively during the 30-day session.”

Malone said UNM will pay for the Lottery instead of requiring students to pay the difference for now because the university expects the government to provide the money in short order.

“UNM can front the money right now, and the idea is that when the money comes in, then everything would balance out,” he said.

If legislators decide not to provide funding for the scholarship, students will be asked to pay back a portion of their scholarships to UNM, Malone said.

He said there is money in the fund, but only enough to cover a fraction of each student’s tuition.

“At this point we have not been given a specific number,” he said. “But the idea is that there is probably at least 50 to 60 percent of the fund available. In other words, it could be 40 to 50 percent of it.”

Isaac Romero, president of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, said during the past semester he has met with students to discuss the Lottery’s insolvency. He said he has been aware of the possibility of insufficient funds for the scholarship since he ran for president last year.

“Quite honestly, this is something that I ran my campaign on when I was running for president,” he said. “We were all aware of the looming danger of losing the Lottery Scholarship, or just the reduction of funds. We felt it a priority to pursue it.”

A short-term goal is to keep standards and funding the same for students currently on the scholarship, Romero said.

“So current students who are on the Lottery Scholarship, how do we keep it so that they keep what they’ve always known?” he said.

“2.5 GPA, 12 credit hours, 100 percent tuition — those are the basics of what the Lottery is now. We wanted to make sure students who are currently on the Lottery Scholarship, and who have demonstrated that they can continue to be successful, maintain that.”

Malone said it would be beneficial for the Lottery Scholarship to be paid for in full this semester rather than get cut halfway through the year.

“From what I’ve heard, there’s a lot of support for keeping it whole for this semester instead of cutting it in the middle of the year,” he said. “That benefits all of us, and we all want that.”
Romero said he is confident that funding will be approved for the scholarship.

“I think it has support from every branch of government, and I think that’s more than enough support,” he said. “I have full confidence that students this semester won’t have to worry about their scholarships.”

Long-Term Lottery Problems

Malone said there is not enough money to maintain the Lottery Scholarship in its present form. He said that while statewide revenue from lottery sales is fairly stable, expenses have been going up because of increases in tuition.

“(The Lottery Scholarship) was created in 1997, and, basically, the revenue exceeded Scholarship expenses,” he said. “So it built up some money along the way. And now we’ve gotten to the point where the revenue is basically the money that’s coming in and it’s not sufficient to cover expenses across the whole state.”

Numerous proposals have been offered to change the Lottery in order to make it more sustainable, Malone said.

“There’s some proposals about higher GPA or higher credit or a lower dollar amount or a specific dollar amount — things along those lines,” he said. “There’s a ton of proposals out there and, really, the Legislature has to go through and see what they want to do.”

Romero said he and other students have worked on a proposal to change the requirements in order to sustain the Scholarship. He said the proposal has not been finalized, but the students have ideas to work with until they find a solution that everyone agrees on.

“The basics of our proposal are increasing GPA requirements by .25, so up to 2.75, and a 15 credit hour minimum,” he said. “But we want to allow students in their first year to have the benefit of the doubt when transitioning into college. If they drop below 15 credit hours, but no less than 12, they still get the scholarship.”

Romero said he and other students at UNM have kept constant communication with other schools from across the state to develop the proposal for the Legislature.

“This is not something that’s just a UNM proposal,” he said. “This is something that all of the schools are agreeing to and we want to make sure that it’s not only benefitting the students at the University of New Mexico or just research schools, but all the schools in the state.”