Tennessee education officials took in early returns on the state's lottery scholarship program and began looking at ways it could be massaged in future years.
Roughly 36,000 students have been given HOPE scholarships so far, awards worth $3,000 a year at four-year schools and $1,500 at community colleges. Roughly 10,000 Wilder-Naifeh grants have been given out at technology centers, the Task Force on Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarships was told Thursday. Those grants award $1,250 a year to students.
The awards for this fall semester amount to about $110 million worth of scholarships. That's a little below projections for this year, but officials said more could be handed out in the spring semester.
"Given it's a new program, I'd like to urge caution," said Brian Noland of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. "There are programs that tend to start small and get big."
Financial aid officers said they have already noticed that students are taking out fewer loans to pay for their schooling. Public schools themselves receive no extra money from the cash infusion, but it gives students a break from shouldering the burden themselves or finding other sources of financial aid.
The largest block of HOPE scholarships were awarded at Board of Regents universities, which received 36.5 percent of the awards for their students. The University of Tennessee system doled out 26.9 percent of the awards, followed by TBR community colleges at 19.2 percent and private colleges at 17.7 percent.
Already, the task force identified a few areas where the program falls short, including little help for nontraditional students, technology certificate programs at community colleges not eligible for the Wilder-Naifeh grants and the belief that large numbers of freshman will lose the scholarships heading into their sophomore year due to academic requirements.
Some schools expect that as many as 60 percent of the recipients won't clear the program's GPA and attendance programs and keep receiving the money in their second year. Once the scholarship is lost, a student can't ever regain it.
"We don't want this to be a one and done program," said David Hutton, financial aid director at Middle Tennessee State University.
At his school, roughly 95 percent of incoming freshman have qualified for the HOPE scholarship, which requires a high school GPA of 3.0 or a minimum score on one of two standardized tests.
The TBR said it was rolling out a number of initiatives to make sure students stayed academically eligible for the program, including midsemester meetings with students having trouble making grades, absence reports, letters for parents and more tutors for classes like math and science that tend to trip up freshman students.
"Student advising becomes very, very important in this process," said Paula Myrick Short, vice chancellor for academic affairs at TBR. "The advising takes on a serious note."