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Need-based student aid backed by Hutchinson

Bill in works, Springdale legislator says by Michael R. Wickline | January 15, 2021 at 7:05 a.m.
Speaker of the House Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, presents resolutions on House rules Thursday Jan. 14, 2021 at the state Capitol in Little Rock. More photos at arkansasonline.com/115session/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he supports the creation of needs-based scholarship program in this regular legislative session and he asked school district superintendents to back this initiative.

The Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship program, financed by the state lottery, "is for everyone regardless of need," the Republican governor said during the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators' superintendents symposium in Little Rock.

Act 1105 of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, requires high school graduates to have ACT scores of at least 19 or the equivalent on comparable college entrance exams to be eligible for the scholarship. High school graduates previously were required to have completed the Smart Core curriculum and achieved either a high school grade-point average of at least 2.5 or a minimum score of 19 on the ACT or its equivalent.

Act 1105 also reduced the scholarship size for recipients from $2,000 to $1,000 for the freshman year at two- and four-year colleges. The scholarships were increased from $3,000 to $4,000 for the sophomore year at four-year colleges and from $2,000 to $3,000 for the sophomore year at two-year colleges. The recipients receive $4,000 as juniors and $5,000 as seniors at four-year colleges.

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Proponents of Act 1105 said it would provide an incentive for students to successfully complete their early years of college and help guard against the scholarship program running short of funds. Critics said it would hurt poor and minority-group students.

The scholarship is financed with lottery's proceeds plus $20 million a year in general revenue.

Hutchinson said Thursday that "because we have a surplus, an additional amount that is coming in every year for scholarships, and because we tightened the requirements some, we have an amount that we can designate toward a needs-based portion of our lottery scholarship."

Afterward, Hutchinson spokeswoman Katie Beck said the proposed Academic Challenge Plus needs-based awards would be granted in increments of $1,000 with a maximum of $4,000 per academic year, for a total scholarship maximum of $5,000 per year.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

Hutchinson said Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, will sponsor the legislation.

Afterward, Eads said in an interview that he hopes to file the bill soon.

"So, if we were already qualified for $1,000, then you get up to $4,000 additional that first year," he said. "Hopefully, it is to help those that run into that impediment of [affording] those first years" before the size of the Academic Challenge Scholarships increases in their later years in college.

Eads said his legislation would require the Challenge Plus Scholarships to be funded after the Academic Challenge Scholarships are financed, and "based on a year in arrears."

Hickey said he "wants to think through" funding the proposed Challenge Plus Scholarships before other lottery-financed programs, the Workforce Challenge Scholarships and Concurrent Challenge Scholarships.

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