LAS VEGAS - The new Millennium Scholarship program is driving record numbers of high school graduates to enroll at Nevada's state colleges and universities.
Numbers remain preliminary as freshmen continue to register for fall classes, but the $7.5 million program appears to be a first step toward the state shaking a long-held, last-place national ranking for sending high school students on to higher education.
More than 7,000 high school seniors qualified for the scholarship in June by graduating with a 3.0 grade point average, and educators expect just more than half to take the state up on its offer of as much as $10,000 for tuition over an eight-year window of eligibility.
The funding for the program comes from a percentage of the state's $1.2 billion share of tobacco settlement money, to be doled out over the next 25 years. State officials say the scholarship program could cost as much as $25 million annually as enrollments compound.
''This helps mostly those people who come from lower- and middle-income households,'' said Gov. Kenny Guinn, the main lobbying force for the program. ''But there's many people who get help from this, from all walks of life. It helps kids go to school, to stay here, and then become part of our work force.''
A better-educated work force, as Guinn sees it, should help the state meet its long-term goal of attracting more high-tech businesses and establishing a more diversified economy.
Shannon Ellis, vice president of student services at the University of Nevada, Reno, said freshman admissions are up 23 percent as of Aug. 15.
''I think every school has underestimated the impact of the scholarship,'' Ellis said. ''We thought we would have large numbers, but every projection has already been exceeded.''
UNR initially expected to attract 1,200 Millennium Scholars, but by late last week Ellis estimated 1,400 had enrolled.
UNLV, the fastest-growing institution in the nation, reports similar numbers. Already experiencing an annual overall growth of from 5 to 6 percent, university officials said freshman admissions are up 19 percent this fall.
By Sept. 1, 2,200 freshman are expected to have enrolled, up from 1,841 last year. President Carol Harter estimates that 1,400 of this year's students will be Millennium Scholars.
Administrators at the Community College of Southern Nevada are uncertain how the new scholarship program is going to affect enrollment.
As of Wednesday, CCSN had enrolled 750 Millennium Scholars of a freshman total of 2,062 full and part-time students. That figure is down significantly from the 2,890 enrolled last year, although the college will continue to enroll students through Sept. 13.
John Bierce, a statistician at CCSN, said educators are watching to see if the scholarship diverts students from the community colleges to the universities.