Columns » Max Brantley

Winners, losers

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The Arkansas Lottery limps along with generally static revenue. It is under-producing money for college scholarships and the awards continue to lose ground against college tuition increases required by declining state general revenue support.

The biggest losers have been the families who need help the most.

New legislation made a 19 ACT score the single qualifying standard for lottery scholarships this year. Previously, a 2.5 GPA also was a qualifier. Everybody suspected the new rule would depress applications and, along with a reduced first-year scholarship award (from $2,000 to $1,000), make the lottery revenue go farther.

At my request, the Department of Higher Education compiled data on scholarship applications and awards that included racial and economic impact.

Overall applications  dropped 16.5 percent, from 19,842 to 16,566. But broken down by race, the difference was stark. White applications dropped 10 percent, to 11,748, while black applications dropped 40.5 percent, to 1,867. The number of whites receiving scholarships dropped about 8 percent, to 8,698, while the number of blacks receiving scholarships dropped 36.4 percent, to 1,117.

Because scholarship applicants use a common scholarship/grant application form, most provide a figure for family income (not verified by tax returns in all cases). That provided another interesting figure: The average family income of scholarship recipients rose 7.5 percent, to $84,264. That's more than double the average family income in Arkansas.

In short, white students from families on the upper end of the income ladder in Arkansas were most likely to receive scholarships financed by lottery ticket purchases. Poor, black students were far less likely to qualify than in years past. It is no secret that Arkansas lags in both college-going and graduation rates and that poor and minority students disproportionately lag in those categories.

And yet the legislature just passed new legislation that seems to have helped those who needed help least. That is, they were students who were likely to be college-bound, lottery scholarship or no lottery scholarship.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, the Republican who led the push for different scholarship standards, acknowledged that the outcome was not unexpected. He said race wasn't a concern, but making the money last was. He said students still could qualify for scholarships after starting college on their own if they achieved an acceptable grade point (and the award in subsequent collegiate years is now higher, $4,000 a year up from $3,000). If the lack of financial help in getting started is a concern, he said the concern would be better directed at the shortcomings of a system that is producing students unable to meet the ACT standard.

Hickey has a point. But those who make it would be better positioned to defend it with a record in support of universal pre-K and a range of other initiatives that help family development and education attainment. I still object to the use of a single test score as a measure of worthiness. Most educators believe grades are a better indication of college success than standardized test scores.

That debate aside, the demographic impact of the law change is stark. Those most in need are getting less. I fear this will be a theme of legislation other than lottery scholarships in the era of Republican domination of the legislature. It was evident in past Hutchinson administration tax policy, which left the working poor out of the last round of income tax cuts.

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