Thousands of college students across New Mexico utilizing the Legislative Lottery Scholarship might have to pay more to attend school next year, unless collaborative efforts between the state’s universities pays off in Santa Fe.
The scholarship traditionally covers 90 percent of tuition, but due to legislative matters and other circumstances, this coverage will drop significantly.
“That’s a difference between, annually, a UNM student paying $500 or $600 to around $2,000 out of their pocket a year,” said Nathan Cowan, executive director of ASUNM Governmental Affairs.
Currently the Lottery Scholarship exists via two sources of income — lottery ticket sales and the liquor excise tax, which is set to expire this year unless it is renewed, Cowan said.
“My office sees that as our biggest threat currently,” he said.
Other priorities for legislators
Cowan said Governmental Affairs pushed for the renewal of the liquor excise tax last year, knowing full well that they would face the same problem again this year, but faced the obstacle of time.
“We’re dealing with budgetary issues every year so they’re like, ‘If we’re only in session for 30 days, we’re only gonna be looking at pieces of legislation that directly affect the financial state of this state,’” he said.
As a result, state legislators decided to focus on other priorities in the short session, essentially putting the matter “on the backburner.”
Cowan said within the next fiscal year, students will begin to experience impacts of depleted funds. He said his office understands the reality that a full renewal may not happen, thus they are working towards a softening the effects.
However, since the liquor excise tax partly funds the Lottery Scholarship, Cowan said many legislatures want to see that money go back to funding DWI programs, especially with the high amount of DWIs in the state.
“Our state’s really poor and so to say, ‘We’re really poor and a lot of people are dealing with financial issues,’ a lot of legislatures see all the money going to students as a waste,” he said. “At ASUNM, we understand that it’s not a waste, and we need to get up there and prove to them that it’s still going to a good spot.”
Governmental Affairs held a summit earlier this month to discuss their plan of action and receive input from students.
Cowan said the forum gave the undergraduate student governing body an opportunity to speak with other schools across the state, such as New Mexico State and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
Students receiving the Lottery Scholarship also have the option of continuing their education at 24 other campuses.
“We were able to have a really good roundtable discussion as to the state of the Lottery Scholarship, the state of the students at all our universities, and all of our top five priorities,” he said. “We were able to collaborate so that when any of us go up to Santa Fe this session — whether it’s myself, part of our team, or someone from another institution — they are able to speak on behalf of all of the students in the state.”
A potential solution
Currently, Lottery Scholarship rules require students to head straight to college following high school graduation.
Cowan said although he was hesitant at first, student leadership, particularly at NMSU, is pushing for a gap year, which may bring in more students or increase retention rates.
“Each of the institutions talked about how high their dropout rates are their freshmen and sophomore years,” Cowan said. “If we’re allowing students to receive funding from the Lottery Scholarship and then they drop out, that’s money that’s wasted and didn’t go to students that were too serious. So we definitely need to prioritize that in a sense. We think a gap year might be the solution there.”
Cowan’s team is also looking into backloading, or re-positioning funds for less coverage in freshmen and sophomore years but more for juniors and seniors.
However, that proposal has its own consequences.
“Some students might not be able to cover that extra few hundred dollars,” Cowan said. “We’ll also be looking at higher education for Pell Grants and things like that to help students in need, because I know a lot of students wouldn’t be able to come straight to college after high school if they didn’t have that 90 percent coverage.”
Being from rural New Mexico himself, Cowan said he knows he, and the 10 students he graduated with, are completely reliant on the Lottery Scholarship.
Another possibility Cowan and his team want to utilize is unclaimed prize money, which can sometimes amount to a couple million dollars each year, he said, a proposition which made it to Gov. Susana Martinez’s office last year, but received a veto.
“That would have brought about $5 million more into the lottery pool. We never got a message as to why that got vetoed, so we’re relatively confused,” Cowan said. “We’ll be pushing it again and we’re confident that if we passed it last year, we can pass it this year and put it on the governor’s desk and try again.”
Cowan said he and his team are advancing towards these issues carefully, but would value student input at the upcoming legislative session. January 30 marks UNM Day in the capital, when students are encouraged to visit with state legislators in Santa Fe to advocate for issues that directly affect their education.
“You’re running into major institutions hiring professional lobbyists going up and talking about issues and we don’t have that type of money or expertise,” he said. “But we have the efficacy base of these pieces of legislation so if we can put a couple students in the office of each legislature, we can talk about how important the Lottery Scholarship is.”
Sarah Trujillo is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @sarahtweets_abq.