(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – A college scholarship available to eligible Nevada high school graduates could be in financial jeopardy as early as next year after the Legislature on Monday reluctantly agreed to take $12.6 million from the program to help balance the state budget.
But even as the Gov. Guinn Millennium Scholarship program faces an uncertain future, Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, rejects the idea of a means test to limit the program only to those in financial need.
Former Gov. Kenny Guinn, for whom the scholarship is named, also rejects such an idea, saying the Legislature in 2011 instead should consider restoring the funding taken this year which he acknowledged was necessary to help fill a more than $800 million budget hole.
Dan Burns, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said means testing as a way to extend the life of the scholarship has been a topic of discussion.
Regent Mark Alden said he would prefer to continue to see the scholarship made available to all eligible students, regardless of income. But when times are tough, means testing should be considered as a way to ensure the program remains viable, he said.
Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno, proposed a bill in the 2009 session that would have limited the scholarship to students or families with an adjusted gross income of less than $100,000 a year. The measure also would have required proof of legal residence to receive the scholarship. Nevada law now does not prohibit an illegal resident from receiving the scholarship. The bill did not get a hearing.
University officials testified in 2007 that fewer than 100 Millennium scholars were illegal residents.
Coffin, who will not be returning as a lawmaker in 2011 to address the scholarship shortfall, or the anticipated $3 billion hole in the next budget, said the purpose of the financial assistance was to keep academically talented Nevada high school graduates in the state.
The scholarship, which ranges from $40 to $80 per college credit hour depending on the college attended, is available only to students attending one of the campuses of the Nevada System of Higher Education. The scholarship limit is $10,000.
Students must qualify by earning a high enough grade point average in high school. Students must also maintain a minimum GPA while in college to continue receiving the scholarship.
Coffin said testimony of the effect of the transfer differed at the close of the session, with estimates putting the life of the program in jeopardy by as early as 2011 or as late as 2014.
“The scholarship is supposed to be based on academic achievement and potential,” he said. “I don’t think means testing is a good idea. We want to keep high quality people here in Nevada.”
Coffin said his daughter will graduate high school in 2012, and that he was counting on the scholarship as a partial assist to the family for college expenses.
“Unless we do something she will never get a dime,” he said.
Even so, Coffin was not sure what other alternatives should be considered to continue the program.
Guinn, who proposed the scholarship in his first term as governor using money from a state settlement with tobacco companies, said he too does not believe means testing is the answer. The scholarship is too important, and the Legislature next year should consider restoring the fund while tackling what could be a $3 billion funding shortfall, he said.
Means testing would only pit one Nevada family against another, Guinn said.
While the transfer was necessary because of the tough economic conditions and the need for all programs to assist with the shortfall, the scholarship is too important to let fail, he said.
“It is so important for economic development and providing an educated workforce,” Guinn said.
Burns said there is no need for a quick resolution to the scholarship shortfall because the program is good through 2014. But the idea of limiting it to those in financial need only as a way to extend its life has been a topic of conversation in the administration, he said.
Regent Mark Alden said he would be amenable to means testing if it could save the scholarship.
“I have no problem with that at all,” he said. “When we’re short on money, we have to be more careful.”
It is a better option than losing the program completely, Alden said.
The scholarship is costing about $25 million a year but is getting only about $18 million a year from the tobacco fund. As a result, the Legislature has transferred money from the state’s unclaimed property fund to keep the program financially sound.
According to the state Treasurer’s Office, which oversees the program, about 59,000 Nevada high school graduates have taken advantage of the program since it began in 2000, with about 20,000 earning degrees.