Whitney McKinney has at least a year before she has to decide where she'll go to college. But the McGavock High School junior said she's already looking closely at two private universities in Tennessee and one in Georgia.
If Tennessee adds $1,000 to $2,000 a year to its HOPE Scholarship, however, choosing between the Volunteer State and the Peach State won't be nearly as tough.
''I think that would make a very big difference,'' McKinney said. ''It's a lot when I think about college tuition. Raising the amount of money would really help. That would tip the scales, I think.''
McKinney, a member of Mayor Bill Purcell's youth council, is a good student, the kind the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship was designed to keep in Tennessee for college. Now state Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, hopes to up the ante.
The basic scholarship to a four-year college or university would climb from $3,000 to $4,000 a year under a bill Cohen plans to introduce in the upcoming legislative session. (Community college scholarships would increase from $1,500 to $2,000.) If Cohen's proposal becomes law, supplemental awards for the neediest and best HOPE recipients also would increase from $1,000 to $2,000, raising the maximum scholarship amount from $4,000 to $6,000 a year.
Cohen said the change is needed at a time when federal Pell grants are being reduced and tuition at state schools is expected to go up once again. And a total surplus of $194 million in lottery revenues is projected for this budget year, which ends June 30, and the year to follow.
''It's the students' money,'' Cohen, a longtime lottery advocate, said of the surplus. ''It's for education.''
But some officials aren't so eager to change the first-year scholarship program, and some also would like to help other groups of students, such as adults interested in going back to school.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has said the state should try to help those nontraditional students at some point, but he also ''firmly believes it would be premature to increase scholarship amounts at this time,'' spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said. ''He has always said the lottery needs to establish a track record, and considering the game is just nearing its first anniversary, we're just not there yet.''
Some of Nashville's brightest students said they wouldn't necessarily be persuaded by an extra grand or two anyway. The pull of leaving the state for college can be too strong for some.
''I've lived here all my life,'' said Michael Kolbe, a senior at Montgomery Bell Academy who has applied to colleges both in and out of Tennessee. ''But you always have a desire to see if something better's out there.''
Terry Giffen, director of college counseling at MBA, said students and parents are often ''brand-conscious,'' and if they can get into an Ivy League school, they'll go. About 65% of the prestigious boys' school's graduates go out of state for college.
But Giffen acknowledged that the lottery-paid award is ''a nice chunk of change.'' And Tom Nagle, another MBA senior and the oldest of four children, said parents planning to put several children through college might need to consider a strong in-state school.
''Even though the Ivy League schools do look good, you have to keep the whole money issue in mind,'' said Nagle, who also is looking at a mix of Tennessee and out-of-state schools.
At Harpeth Hall School, the number of graduates who stayed in Tennessee for college actually dropped from 16 to 12 last year, while the size of the graduating class declined by just one student. But ''that could be just the complexion of the class,'' and the number of in-state applications did increase by eight, said Ophelia Paine, a college counselor at the exclusive girls' school.
Whitney, the McGavock junior, thinks the prospect of an extra $2,000 a year for the best students will be extremely appealing, inspiring many people to work harder for the best grades and test scores.
''I'm really liking that,'' she said of Cohen's proposal. ''That idea should be pushed.''
What people think
Would increasing the HOPE Scholarship keep more students in Tennessee?
''The world's getting a lot smaller, and people want to explore more than they used to.... That would be huge to get us to stay. It just doesn't make sense to go to Vanderbilt or Rhodes if you can get a better deal somewhere further away.''
Stuart Cook, senior, Montgomery Bell Academy
''I really wanted to get out of the state of Tennessee.''
Christina Carlisle, East Literature Magnet High School senior who's planning to attend Hampton University in Virginia
''I would love to stay close to home. Raising the amount of money would really make a difference.''
Whitney McKinney, McGavock High School junior
''That could swing it.''
Tom Nagle, senior, Montgomery Bell Academy
About lottery scholarships
Students who graduate from a Tennessee high school this spring can earn a HOPE Scholarship for next fall with a 3.0 high school grade-point average, a 21 on the ACT college-entrance exam (a change from the 19 required in the program's first year) or a 980 on the SAT. Just one of those three scores is required for the scholarship, which is now worth $3,000 a year for most students attending accredited four-year schools in Tennessee and $1,500 for those going to two-year schools.
However, students with both a 3.75 GPA and a 29 on the ACT (or a 3.75 GPA and a 1280 on the SAT) can earn an extra $1,000 a year, as can students from families making $36,000 a year or less.
So the maximum award is $2,500 at two-year schools and $4,000 at four-year institutions.
The only lottery-funded award available to nontraditional students is a $1,250-a-year grant to attend one of 26 Tennessee Technology Centers. There are no academic requirements for that award.