Betting on higher education

State lottery-funded scholarship programs are right on the money when it comes to curbing college costs.

Luis Ruuska

College affordability and accessibility are shaping up to be hot-button issues in higher education this year.

Some states’ responses, such as Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” plan, are looking to revolutionize funding higher education. Others, such as California’s Master Plan, are simply looking to evaluate and update existing higher education plans.

However, there’s also the state of Tennessee, which is looking to do both. A Tennessee politician wants to revolutionize higher education funding by slightly repurposing an existing system.

 In his annual State of the State address, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled the “Tennessee Promise program,” which would offer two years of community college or technical school at no cost to all graduating high school seniors in Tennessee.

Haslam plans to fund the
Tennessee Promise program in part by repurposing funds from the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship. The state rolled out TELS in January 2003, and it offers students a variety of merit and need-based scholarships for up to four years of college as long as they meet certain residency and GPA requirements, among other things.

Georgia was the first state to use a lottery scholarship program in 1993, which was very successful. A handful of other states have since structured similar programs, including Florida, New Mexico, Kentucky, South Carolina, West Virginia and
Arkansas.

The Tennessee Promise program is a direct response to the fact that only about 31 percent of Tennesseans ages 25 to 34 have a post-secondary certificate or degree. In comparison, about 48 percent of similarly aged Minnesotans have a degree.

So while Minnesota and other states may not have issues with higher education to the same degree as Tennessee, they still are struggling to make college affordable.

In this respect, Minnesota and other states ought to be giving programs like the Tennessee Promise or lottery scholarship programs a look to see if they might have the same success by implementing similar programs.

Minnesota directs lottery revenue to the General Fund; the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund; the Natural Resources Fund; and the Game and Fish Fund.

The General Fund and the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund received the most lottery revenue at about $68.2 million and $31 million, respectively, in 2012.

By comparison, Tennessee put more than $323 million in lottery revenue toward scholarships and grants in 2012.

The question all states need to ask in the face of similar statistics is where can they find revenue or funding to repurpose toward scholarships and grants for students.

Is it by redistributing some or all of the revenue from where lottery revenue currently goes? Is it from cutting funding to wasteful programs?

There is no clear answer, simply because each state is in a complex and unique situation and each has its own priorities when it comes to funding.

But the fact is the Tennessee Promise plan and lottery scholarship programs have the right idea. The more we invest in our students and higher education now, the better off we will all be in the future.