Recent opinion polling suggests a substantial majority of Tennesseans favor limiting state lottery-funded scholarships to students in financial need.
The current practice is to reward academic success regardless of family income or socioeconomic background.
Released May 21 by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the poll showed 64 percent of respondents believe the HOPE scholarship program should award students demonstrating financial need, while 34 percent favored the current practice. “Perhaps not surprisingly, differences of opinion for education scholarships depend most on income,” the poll’s executive summary stated. “Upper-income individuals are most supportive of the current practice, and those making less than $75,000 are substantially more interested in restricting the scholarship based on financial need.”
The poll surveyed 813 registered voters via phone from May 6 to 13 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Presently, in order to receive HOPE scholarships right out of high school a student must, regardless of individual financial need or family income, carry a 3.0 grade point average or post a 21 grade out of a possible 36 on the ACT exam.
The most recent debate in the state Legislature on HOPE came last session when Sen. Doug Overbey’s proposal to change the way time is used to measure student retention of the scholarship was defeated in the Senate finance committee.
An outspoken supporter of the HOPE scholarship, Overbey told TNReport that legislative support for picking up a provision for need-based scholarships was doubtful. “I think most of my colleagues probably don’t see the need to change the qualifications for the HOPE scholarship at this time,” said Overbey, a Republican from Maryville.
Opposition to Overbey’s bill came from members of his own party on the committee who saw those changes as a possible endangerment to the lottery’s future financial solvency. These were the reasons Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, cited when he lead the debate against the proposal.
Following release of the Vandy poll, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, suggested to TNReport that Tennesseans are looking to expand college opportunities to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it and doing so would mitigate the social costs of people spending money on the lottery over other financial responsibilities.
“If we don’t have a social benefit to counterbalance that social cost, then what are we doing in that business?” Kyle said.
State-sponsored scholarships that reward academic merit gained popularity after Georgia adopted such a program for its HOPE scholarship in 1993, which Tennessee’s scholarship largely follows.
Critics say that such an approach often leaves out at-risk populations, such as minorities, in favor of students who would likely go to college regardless of receiving the scholarship.
But a 2007 report from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators praised Tennessee for awarding academic achievement while still managing to include larger numbers of students by requiring students to meet either the GPA or ACT mark, rather than asking students to meet both marks.
Students from low-income households who fall just short of the HOPE requirements may qualify for the HOPE Access Grant, which is meant for students to carry for one year, at which point the student is expected to qualify for the regular HOPE scholarship in his or her second year. HOPE Access covered 408 students in 2011-12, compared to more than 43,000 in the main HOPE program. Those low-income students who already qualify academically for HOPE may also apply for a lottery-funded supplement.
In 2011-12, 58 percent, or about 570,000 public-school students in Tennessee were considered economically disadvantaged, according to the state’s education department.
Reach Alex Hubbard at firstname.lastname@example.org