House Bill 2, the New Mexico state appropriations bill, has been approved by both chambers of the Legislature and is headed to the governor’s desk for her approval. The proposed budget legislation would allocate $59.6 million dollars toward the Lottery Scholarship for state high school graduates who choose to pursue New Mexico higher education.
The Lottery Scholarship is a “merit-based” New Mexico scholarship program that helps pay for New Mexico high school graduates’ tuition at a state college or university. A majority of the scholarship’s funding comes from lottery ticket sales.
If approved, the scholarship would cover 90% of tuition for those who are eligible to receive it, a marked increase compared to last year’s funding, which only covered 60%.
Despite these benefits, merit-based scholarships have been scrutinized for years for siphoning limited resources away from low-income students to the most privileged, according to a 2005 NPR story.
“The Lottery Scholarship — the state’s largest financial aid program — is not need-based even though New Mexico has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation,” New Mexico Voices for Children (NM Voices), a children’s advocacy group, said in a 2018 infographic on the topic.
Additionally, a substantial minority of all scholarships funded by the New Mexico Lottery, which sells scratch offs and draw games among other products, are awarded to students from wealthier families who don’t receive federal financial aid.
“One in three Lottery Scholarship dollars go to first-time scholarship recipients with family income above $90,000,” according to New Mexico Higher Education Department data from 2012. Almost half (43%) of Lottery Scholarship recipients came from households that made over $75,000 a year and received no federal student aid, according to a 2015 analysis conducted by the state Legislature.
UNM administration and ASUNM leadership lobbied heavily this past spring to increase state funding for the Lottery Scholarship.
Outgoing ASUNM President Mia Amin wrote a letter to the editor that ran in the Feb. 14 edition of the Albuquerque Journal that “urged” the state to increase funding for the scholarship, citing reasons such as helping students stay in school and perceived benefits to the local economy.
“We need to take notice of the excellence our state has to offer and groom New Mexicans to be educated and productive members of our local economy,” Amin wrote at the time.
ASUNM President-elect and liberal arts major Greg Romero campaigned on the notion that he would be an advocate for the scholarship’s continued funding by the Legislature.
Romero said he stood by his prior position even after being shown the scholarship recipients’ adjusted gross income data.
“I would like lower-income students to be prioritized first, but I would really like for everyone to have that access to education,” Romero said in an interview with the Daily Lobo. “The lottery is extremely helpful to thousands of New Mexico students and the reason that many can go to college. If I didn’t advocate for it, that would be a disservice to current and future Lobos.”
Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, who voted in favor of the proposed budget increase, is a strong advocate of keeping the scholarship merit-based to continue to support middle class college-bound students who might otherwise become ineligible.
“If you make it need based, you’ll have middle-class kids who want to stay here — and go to school here — going somewhere else,” Harper said.
On the other hand, NM Voices called for the scholarship to become entirely need-based, citing that “only 31% of New Mexico’s state financial aid is need-based, (while) the U.S. average is 76%.”
The Lottery Scholarship’s credit enrollment requirement, combined with the minimum GPA condition, works to edge out students who have to work full-time while also taking classes to make ends meet.
“Low-income working students tend to work longer hours than their high-income counterparts,” according to Inside Higher Ed. “Students who work 15 hours or more per week are more likely to have a C average or lower, while those who work less than 15 hours are more likely to have a B average or higher.”
“The lottery-based scholarships that are being provided are not addressing where the real need is,” James Jimenez, the executive director of NM Voices, said. “For a child of color born in New Mexico, there's a higher chance that child will live in poverty than a white child ... I think we need to do a much better job of directing aid toward families of color, (and) more specifically, low to moderate income families.”
John Benavidez, a professor at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, said that in the case of the Lottery Scholarship, the issue isn’t just that it’s benefiting the most privileged of students, but that the majority of the funding comes from some of the lowest income neighborhoods in New Mexico.
“(Something) like 82% of lottery sales come from 20% of the players, and then most of that 20% are compulsive gamblers where they're coming from lower income brackets,” Benavidez told the Lobo. “They're the ones that are actually sending students to college.”
According to the New Mexico Lottery Authority, 23% of lottery consumers come from households with income of less than $25,000 a year and 27% make less than or equal to $50,000 a year. Only 15% of lottery consumers are from households making $100,000 or more annually.
Jimenez, when asked if the way the scholarship is set up plays into institutionalized discrimination, said: “I would say that I heard a speaker once say there is no such thing as a race-neutral policy; you're either moving towards equity or away from it. The way the lottery scholarship is currently structured is not an anti-racist policy.”
Lissa Knudsen contributed to this article. Lissa is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @lissaknudsen
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @madelinepukite