Unsustainable


Republicans and Democratic state Treasurer Kate Marshall have been trading shots for weeks about the fiscal health of the Millennium Scholarship.

GOP lawmakers and former state Controller Steve Martin, who's running against Ms. Marshall in November's election, have alleged she's mishandling the program and, as a result, it won't be able to meet its obligations.

Ms. Marshall has countered that she warned lawmakers about the problem months ago and that their tinkering with the program's finances during February's budget-balancing special session wouldn't add up.

They can't see the forest for the trees. Both sides are trying to assign blame for a shortfall when the problem is the program itself. The 10-year-old Millennium Scholarship, while well-intentioned, isn't sustainable.

The scholarships provide up to $10,000 to Nevadans who graduate from high school with at least a 3.25 grade-point average and attend one of the state's public colleges or universities. The awards were created by Gov. Kenny Guinn under the promise of being fully funded -- forever -- by settlement payments from the tobacco lawsuit.

But because the scholarships' criteria made it possible for every Nevada high school student to qualify if they met minimal standards, more and more of them did, driving up costs for not only the program, but for the higher education system as well. Grade inflation gave mediocre graduates access to a fully subsidized college education, at first including remedial courses that covered the same material they supposedly mastered in high school.

Roughly half of all Clark County School District graduates qualify for the Millennium Scholarship each year.

It is not, as initially promised, an incentive for Nevada's "best and brightest" to stay here for college. It has become an entitlement. And with tobacco settlement payments declining -- like everything else in this economy -- taxpayers will be asked to dig deeper to keep this ailing program alive.

Rather than bicker over how much money the scholarships need to keep going, Mr. Martin, Ms. Marshall and lawmakers of both parties should be debating how to scale them back and indeed reserve them for the "best and brightest." A merit-based qualification standard, such as a score on a standardized college admission test, or a competitive element -- say, allowing only the top 20 percent of each Nevada high school's graduating class to be eligible -- would go a long way to making the Millennium Scholarship mean something other than "I showed up at school and did my homework."

 

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