OKLAHOMA’S Promise has helped thousands of students attain college degrees. For many of these lower- and middle-income students, higher education would have been out of reach without this taxpayer-funded scholarship program.
So why would lawmakers mess with one of the best things they’ve ever done for younger Oklahomans?
Last week, the Oklahoma Policy Institute noted that budgeting sleight-of-hand could leave the program without enough money to meet obligations in the coming academic year. The institute questioned whether the budget move, which involved diverting about $8 million from the program, is even legal.
In 2007, the Legislature protected funding for the program. Money needed to pay for scholarships is taken off the top of the state’s budget, meaning the money isn’t available to legislators during the appropriations process. Or at least it’s not supposed to be.
Democrats want an attorney general’s opinion about the budgeting move. Meantime, Gov. Mary Fallin has called for delaying implementation of the shift to ensure no child loses out. The diversion will come up Monday before the state Board of Equalization.
Oklahoma’s Promise is a proven, effective way to increase the number of college graduates in Oklahoma, an issue that’s long been on the minds of economic development-minded policymakers. This state needs more college-educated citizens, to attract and retain well-paying jobs that will sustain and improve the Oklahoma economy. That those reaping the most benefit from the scholarship program are talented, hard-working students of lesser financial means makes it an even greater source of pride.
The $50,000 family income limit for qualifying students hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since its adoption in 2003, so fewer students qualify. In fact, the number of scholarship recipients has been on the decline since 2010. Some students who initially qualify are excluded if family income grows too fast as the student progresses through high school. State higher education officials have said that federal and state regulations regarding academic progress and tougher college GPA requirements likely mean that the decline will continue.
Instead of working to enable more students to participate in the program, the focus is typically on how to further restrict access. In the realm of mistakes, this is a whopper. We understand that budgets are tight. Everyone wants more money. At around $60 million a year, Oklahoma’s Promise isn’t cheap. But rather than a straight expense, it’s an investment — in our kids and the state’s economic future.
Oklahoma's Promise recipients are better prepared for higher education than their peers. They go to college and stay in school at a better rate. They’re more likely to get a degree. Many of these students are the first in their families to attend and complete college — an accomplishment that could make the state’s initial investment pay off for generations.
If the Legislature’s budget diversion endangers the ability of the state to keep its promise to a deserving group of students, then the equalization board, legislative leaders or the governor should have the wherewithal to right this wrong. Students begin working as early as eighth grade to meet the academic requirements of the scholarship. They’ve earned and deserve more than an IOU from the Legislature.