Some Tennessee students who qualify for the first lottery scholarships this fall may be slipping through a window that won't be open long.
Current law says high school students with either a 3.0 grade point average or a 19 score on the ACT college entrance exam qualify for one of the lottery scholarships, which range from $1,500 to $4,000 a year.
The first version of the lottery scholarship bill that passed last year required both a 3.0 GPA and a 19 on the ACT, with the standardized test score intended as protection against grade inflation. But the standard was changed in the last days of negotiations to an either/or proposition.
The discussion at the time was that the state should avoid erecting too high a barrier to earning a scholarship. But the 19 ACT standard may open the door for thousands of students whose readiness for college is questionable. According to a study by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, "many of these students may require remedial and developmental instruction."
Sen. Steve Cohen, who fought for nearly 20 years to get the lottery approved by the voters, said last week he thinks the ACT standard should be eliminated and the scholarships awarded on the basis of GPA only.
"The idea was not to make this an entitlement, but to reward and encourage greater academic achievement," he said.
According to THEC estimates, the current standard would mean 96,439 lottery scholarship students after four years. Without the ACT standard, there would be 78,508 - or nearly 18,000 fewer scholarship students. That translates into the state spending about $56 million less on scholarships.
The money is significant because any "excess" lottery proceeds - money not needed to cover scholarships - is to be used for pre-kindergarten education. Those programs have many forceful advocates in and around the Legislature, including Gov. Phil Bredesen.
But the governor says he's not ready to drop the ACT standard yet.
"I think the lottery scholarships should be left alone for a couple of years," he said. "Let's get some experience, find out how it's working and where it's not working, and then come back in a couple of years with a more carefully thought-out package to take the next step moving forward."
Cohen is not proposing to drop the ACT requirement for incoming freshmen this fall, but at some later date. Without that change, he says, there will be little or nothing left for pre-K programs, and it even may be difficult to fully fund all scholarships. The law automatically reduces the value of the scholarships if there is not enough money to cover them.
So whether to keep the 19 ACT requirement becomes a question of balance. Is it better to provide scholarships to as many college students as possible, or to give increased attention to 4-year-olds who have the risk factors for poor academic performance and are far more likely to dventually drop out of school before they get into a position to take advantage of a scholarship?
Larry Miller, D-Memphis and a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, which met with Cohen over his proposal last week, said the choice puts him "between a rock and a hard place."
Legislators have questioned if removing the ACT standard would have a disproportionate impact on black students. According to THEC's figures, it would not. Of the students predicted to be eligible under the current standard, 11.5 percent are black; of those predicted to be eligible without it, 12 percent are black.
"My question would be, Who do we adversely impact?" Miller said. "Initially I thought it was a bad idea, but I want to keep an open mind about it. If you're just taking it away from scholarships that's one thing, but if the money goes to the service of pre-kindergarten that's a different thing."
The tough decision has some preferring to wait and see.
"I've been talking with members of the House and there are some reservations about changing the eligibility requirements this year," said Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, who carried the lottery bills in the House. "A lot of members feel we should wait at least until next year when we have better numbers for what the lottery will bring in and for how many students qualify."
Newton said he does not doubt removing the ACT standard would free up tens of millions of dollars that could go elsewhere. "That would certainly create an excess for pre-K," he said. "But at the same time there is a hesitancy to change the rules right now."
Newton points out that being eligible for a scholarship does not mean automatic entry to some colleges.
The state's four-year universities have entry requirements based on ACT or SAT scores plus high school grades. For five of them, a 19 ACT is sufficient to get in.
Middle Tennessee State, UT-Knoxville, UT-Martin and UT-Chattanooga may require higher scores, depending upon grade point average and other factors.