Regents hear dour financial aid picture

The Millennium Scholarship is losing its luster.

Once the lucrative ticket to a free college education for thousands of Nevada high school students, the scholarship now pays for a fraction of what it used to. Fewer students qualify. And it covers only 12 credits per semester -- the bare minimum for a full-time student.

"It used to mean so much more," Regent Steve Sisolak said.

As a result, the scholarship is enticing fewer students than ever before, a Board of Regents committee was told Thursday. The percentage of eligible students who use the scholarship has steadily declined since it was introduced in 2000. About three out of four students decided to use it then. In 2006, that rate had fallen to three in five.

The decline of the Millennium Scholarship is one sign of a greater problem brewing for college students in Nevada. For the first time higher education officials can remember, the total amount of student aid given to college students in Nevada dropped last year from the year before, a system report showed.

"There is no good news in this report," university system Vice Chancellor Jane Nichols said. "In fact, when I saw it, it made me cry. It is the saddest thing I have seen."

The result is leaving college students in a bind: Tuition is rising statewide, yet there is less financial help to go around. It also could be the cause of stagnating college enrollment levels statewide, Nichols said.

Regents on Thursday heard proposals from college presidents to raise tuition. In some cases the increases would be dramatic. Students at the Boyd School of Law at UNLV could see their tuition more than double in just two years under the plans.

Regents will vote on whether to accept the increases at their meeting in April.

"I'm telling you, we have a crisis in financial aid," Nichols said.

Nichols urged the regents' Student and Academic Affairs committee to take the issue up with legislators, who she said are responsible for the drop in financial aid.

Nevada has one of the lowest rates of state funding for financial aid, she said. Loans, primarily from federal sources, make up the bulk of financial aid awarded, at 45 percent.

Federal sources make up 60 percent of all financial aid; state sources, including the Millennium Scholarship, make up 21 percent, and institutions contribute 14 percent.

The Millennium Scholarship, the brainchild of then-Gov. Kenny Guinn, was hailed as an innovative way to keep Nevada's high school students from leaving the state. It was funded by money Nevada received from tobacco company settlements.

When it was introduced eight years ago, the scholarship awarded $10,000 to high school students who met the lenient eligibility requirements.

At the time, it paid for 104 percent of every credit hour for university students. There was no limit to the number of credit hours it could be applied to per semester, so students wanting to graduate early could use up all of the $10,000 in less than four years.

Since then, requirements for eligibility have become tighter.

The $10,000 cap hasn't risen, and since tuition has, the scholarship pays for only 76 percent of every credit hour at the university level.

Legislators also restricted use of the scholarship to only 12 credits per semester, so students wishing to graduate early -- or in the standard four years, for that matter -- still have to shell out their own money each semester for any credits beyond 12.

Higher education officials suspect that the scholarship is no longer as enticing and therefore not as effective at keeping students from leaving the state for college.

"It's a little disconcerting," Nevada Director of Financial Aid Sharon Wurm said.

Wurm said the changes were made as the amount of tobacco settlement money waned and legislators struggled to keep the scholarship alive.

Nichols said the scholarship might be to blame for a steady decline in the number of private donors for student scholarships. Those donors have felt the scholarship was enough for students, she said.

"People think the Millennium Scholarship is sufficient," she said. "It is not even beginning to take care of everything."

She urged regents to lobby legislators for more financial aid for college students, but the regents panel took no action on the topic during the meeting.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at (702) 383-0440 or

Total amount of financial aid given to students attending Nevada colleges, including from college, state and federal sources (Figures in millions):
University of Nevada, Las Vegas$145.2
University of Nevada, Reno$94.4
Nevada State College (Henderson)$4.3
College of Southern Nevada$28.4
Great Basin College (Elko)$3.5
Truckee Meadows Community College (Reno)$10.7
Western Nevada College (Carson City)$5.9
*in millions
Since the Millennium Scholarship was introduced in 2000, the percentage of eligible students using the scholarship has steadily declined.
User rate75.6%74.8%74.1%70.4%66.7%61.1%
Eligible students7,4988,1638,6979,0858,6218,715
Source: Nevada System of Higher Education