Millennium scholarships in decline

As the purchasing power of Nevada’s free scholarships decline, so do their use by the state’s students

Students at UNR must pay a per-credit fee to support a fire sciences academy they don’t use. It’s one of a number of factors undercutting the value of Millennium Scholarships.

Students at UNR must pay a per-credit fee to support a fire sciences academy they don’t use. It’s one of a number of factors undercutting the value of Millennium Scholarships.

Photo By Dennis Myers

As the minutes neared when Gov. Kenny Guinn began his message to the 1999 Nevada Legislature, there was tension in the Assembly hall. Nevada had a new source of funding, wrested from the tobacco corporations in a lawsuit designed to make those corporations pay for the tobacco-related illnesses the state had been paying for in Medicaid dollars.

There were no restrictions on how the money could be used, and the first year’s payment was expected to be nearly $50 million. Plenty of interest groups already were carving it up. The health care lobby and the state attorney general wanted all of it for health care. One legislator didn’t want to spend any of it, instead putting it in an investment fund until it paid out $50 million every year.

Guinn did not reach the topic until nearly the end of his speech, and then he sprang a new idea.

“I believe this money can give us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide Nevada’s children with the means to advance their education in a way never thought possible,” Guinn said. “It is an idea whose effects transcend party lines, regional differences and social class, an idea that places at our door, this evening, the chance for all of us to do something truly heroic, to write a great and indelible chapter in the history of our state and in the lives of our children.

“So it is with great pride that I propose to you tonight the establishment of the Millennium Scholarship. These scholarships will allow every Nevada high school graduate, with a B average or better, to get an education at a Nevada university or community college. We will start with the class of 2000, and we will offer these ‘Millennium scholarships’ in the fall of that year. I believe every Nevada student who studies hard and makes good grades should be able to continue his or her education—regardless of financial status. The Millennium Scholarship will make that possible.”

Besides the educational benefits, Guinn’s idea offered the state some ammunition against two of its long-term problems—students who went to college and never returned and the state’s low number of students who went on to college at all, which was usually the lowest in the nation.

The legislators approved Guinn’s idea, and so did the public—in the first year, 2000, 76.7 percent of those eligible used the scholarships. It continued in that range for the first four years.

Then the numbers started declining—71 percent in 2004, 68 in 2005, 64.6 in 2006, and 55 in 2007. That’s a decline of more than 20 percent since the program began.

What happened?

Confusing the message
Nevada’s share of the tobacco lawsuit settlement is tied to how much people smoke, which they aren’t doing as much as they once did, so the payments are arriving in smaller amounts. As a consequence, the Nevada Legislature has gone through some debates over how to make the available but declining money go further, which usually meant tightening up eligibility requirements for the scholarships.

In its original form, students who attended Nevada high schools for at least two years and graduated with a 3.0 average could go to a Nevada college with a $10,000 four-year scholarship. The concept was simple and easy to understand.

Since then the grade eligibility has been raised from 3.0 to 3.10 to 3.25. Millennium scholars now must use the scholarships within six years of graduation compared to eight years originally. Paradoxically, the number of credits that the scholarship can be used for has been restricted to 12 credits per semester. And the college grade point average has been raised from 2 to 2.6 or 2.75 (depending on the college year).

“I don’t think it’s getting the same level of publicity outside the university,” says Nevada higher education vice chancellor Jane Nichols said. “In fact, what attention they do get is usually negative.”

The chronic debates in the legislature over the future of the program have led to confusion over whether students qualify for the program—and even over whether the scholarship program still exists. “I thought they got rid of that,” one mother said at a high school function in Reno.

“What they know is it’s worth less and ‘Will it be there?’ “ Nichols said.

In addition, the passage of time and various changes in Nevada higher education have eroded the value of the scholarship. The $2,500 annual payment to university students and $1,250 payments to community college students don’t go as far as they used to. This is partly a function of normal inflation but other factors also come into play.

“Every year the scholarship hasn’t increased but the tuition has,” Guinn said. “And they add special [fees].”

For instance, a $5 per-credit fee to subsidize the Nevada Fire Sciences Academy in Carlin was tacked onto tuition at UNR.

“A kid who goes to UNR, he has to pay about $800 over a period of four years out of that $10,000 to support the fire science academy that they don’t go to,” said Guinn, who just chaired a committee on the future of the fire academy. (See Upfront, previous page.)

The ever-rougher eligibility requirements are taking a toll on those who were helped the most by the scholarships—low-income students who had to work during high school and did not have the best grades. There is no needs test to qualify for the scholarships, so they are not limited by family income.

There is evidence that Nevadans became better students when they were trying to qualify for the scholarships in high school by bringing their grade point averages up. Fewer Millennium scholars needed remedial help when they got to college. While the numbers have fluctuated, about a third of Millennium scholars have needed remedial help compared to more than half of other students. In 2006, it was 28 percent compared to 50.

Guinn said he and other state officials did a lot of missionary work to spread word around the state about the Millennium Scholarships, and he’s not sure how much of that has been continued.

“We really emphasized it, and we pushed very hard,” Guinn said. “When you only have 36 percent of your kids going on to college, that’s the lowest in the nation. We were vitally concerned about it so everywhere we went we promoted the Millennium Scholarships and that probably had an effect on it.”

Guinn and his initiatives are not popular in the Gibbons administration, and there is particular conservative disdain for the idea of free college educations, so there is likely less publicity from that sector.

But Jim Richardson, who lobbies faculty issues at the Nevada Legislature, said there is still public relations work done by the higher education system to spread the word on the scholarships.

“But the university’s certainly still geared up. The university and community colleges still promote it.”

Richardson said he considers the principal problem to be the decline in the scholarship’s purchasing power.

“There’s a big problem in that it’s not indexed. It’s not tied in any way to inflation or the rising cost of tuition.”

“The student has to come up with more of his own money,” Nichols said.

Regent Howard Rosenberg questioned whether more promotion is necessary.

“Why would you have to?” he asked. “The Millennium Scholarships have been around for a while now. I would think every parent and student who’s interested would know or find out. We have financial aid workshops twice a year.”