Tuesday, May 18, 2004 | 11:07 a.m.
Candice deGuzman dreamed of being a doctor when she grew up.
But she knew that it wouldn't be easy to pay for college, and the pressure of working and getting grades good enough to get into medical school would be tremendous.
Her financial worries, at least, were lifted just before she graduated from high school four years ago, when deGuzman, now 22, became one of the state's first Millennium Scholars and used the award to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
DeGuzman, who also had been offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California, was among 400 to graduate this year from UNLV or the University of Nevada, Reno, to have used the state-sponsored scholarships, created by Gov. Kenny Guinn in 1999 and paid for with tobacco settlement money.
This year represents the first full class of students eligible for the scholarship -- the high school Class of 2000 -- and the program has been popular and successful, state officials and students said.
"It really helps people who want to go to college," said 22-year-old Sarah Goodin, a biological sciences major and Bonanza High School graduate. "It makes it possible. It may have been harder for a lot of people to go. Me and my friends don't have $5,000 a year to throw around."
The scholarships pay up to $80 per credit hour toward tuition at any state institution for Nevada high school graduates who earned a B average or better, up to $10,000 per student.
Because the money from the tobacco settlement is dwindling, the 2003 Nevada Legislature voted to slowly tighten the requirements. Even with that, the program is fully funded only through 2008.
The state treasurer's office did not have an estimate of how much has been spent so far, according to Kathy Besser, chief of staff.
Guinn, who holds a doctorate in education, pushed for support of the program in his commencement address at UNLV's graduation Saturday.
"The state of Nevada is getting a return on their investment that can't be measured in dollars and cents," Guinn said. "It's a return that will last a lifetime."
Guinn has said the program will help diversify and promote a more highly educated workforce and encourage economic development in Nevada.
Guinn's theory is supported by stories such as deGuzman's and Goodin.
DeGuzman will begin studies at the University of Nevada School of Medicine in the fall debt-free, and Goodin will begin classes at UNLV's School of Dental Medicine in the fall, also debt-free.
"It helped me a great deal because I am not in debt at all for my undergrad," said Goodin, who shudders at the coming cost of dental school. "Otherwise -- I don't know. It's (dental school) pretty expensive, $35,000 a year."
DeGuzman said she also was able to select jobs that would be "resume builders instead of finding a job with the best pay."
Tamar Aprahamian, a 22-year-old psychology major who said she hopes to attend the UNLV Boyd Law School, said she was able to participate in college more because she didn't have to work as much.
"It did what it was supposed to do in that it allowed me to attend school without the headache of worrying about finances," Aprahamian said.
Guinn points to the program's popularity as evidence that it is succeeding. About 32,000 students statewide have maintained the B average in high school required to qualify for the scholarship since it began in 2000.
In the first two years about two-thirds of those who qualified have used the scholarships, according to the state treasurer's office, which administers the program. About 13,500 students used the scholarships at state institutions this semester. State officials do not have a total count of how many students have used the scholarship.
Through 2003 about 20 percent lost the grants because they didn't keep a C average in college, according to the treasurer's office. Since last year, when the grade point average required to keep the scholarship was raised, to 2.6, that jumped to 34 percent, but students can requalify for the money if they raise their grades.
A study of the first two groups of students graduating high school in 2000 and 2001 also showed that the program not only helped students get into college, but it encouraged them to do well in high school and helped them succeed in college.
The study, published in March 2003, showed that more than one-half of the Millennnium-eligible students surveyed said they would not have been able to attend college without the scholarship, and that the option of the scholarship encouraged them to do well in high school.
At least one-third of those surveyed also said that they would have attended college out-of-state if the Millennium Scholarship had not been available.
Precise measures of the program's success, however, are hard to come by. Enrollment numbers have risen at both UNLV and UNR, hitting increases as high as 8 percent in the first two years that the Millennium Scholarships were made available.
But the profile of each institution's freshman class does not show any clear effect from the Millennium Scholarships. The average SAT or ACT scores of the overall student bodies at UNLV and UNR have changed little in the past five years.
Nor did the individual universities immediately have any data on the graduating Millennium Scholars as far as their average grades, nor of their plans after graduation, thus it is too soon to tell what impact they'll have on the state's economic development.
Guinn's predictions that these graduates will improve the economic diversity of the state are, however, consistent with years of research into the benefits of higher education, according to economics professor Keith Schwer, director of UNLV's Center for Business and Economic Research.
But because of Nevada's exponential growth, there may never be a way to positively link the state's economic growth to the Millennium Scholarships, Schwer said.
"One of the things I could say is that it's hard to find economies in any area of the United States that are diversified and growing and dynamic in high incomes that (don't) have a university," Schwer said.
The first college graduate in his family, Guinn told the graduates that he understood what it was like to struggle financially to pay for school, but he also knew the benefits of attaining a college degree.
"I know what it's (getting an education) done for me and my family, and what it has allowed me to do for my community," Guinn said before the commencement ceremony.
"My hope is for them (the graduates) to have choices."