STILLWATER — Possible changes to a state-sponsored scholarship program could make it harder for Oklahoma students to go to college, higher education officials said Wednesday.
Officials said changes to family income requirements under the Oklahoma's Promise scholarship program could reduce the number of students who are eligible for the program by about 10 percent.
Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson said such changes could hurt the state's efforts to produce more college graduates.
Oklahoma's Promise provides free tuition to students who meet certain academic, financial and disciplinary requirements. It doesn't cover other costs, such as mandatory fees, books and housing.
House Bill 1721 would lower an income cap that families can't exceed when a student enters college.
Under the current rules, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders who apply for the scholarship must show that their families don't earn more than $50,000 a year.
Then, before the students enter college they must fall below another family income cap. Under the current rules, the student's family must earn less than $100,000 a year. The bill seeks to lower the second annual income cap to $60,000. The bill wouldn't apply to students already enrolled in college under the program.
The measure passed the House Monday by a 56-37 vote. It now goes to the Senate.
About 19,600 students received scholarships this year, according to data from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Even without changes to the requirements, officials expect that total to dip slightly to about 19,300 students next year and 19,100 students in the fall of 2014.
But if the proposed changes are enacted, officials say, the decline would be sharper. According to State Regents numbers, the program would lose an extra 500 students during the first year after it takes effect. By the fall of 2018, that total would grow to 1,800 students.
The changes would come shortly after a previous round of rule changes that only recently took effect. A 2007 bill changed the program's requirements, adding the $100,000 second income threshold — the requirement the bill seeks to change — and also added a college GPA requirement students must maintain to stay eligible for the program. Those changes took effect last fall.
A previous change that requires students to make sufficient academic progress to keep their scholarships also took effect in the fall.
Bryce Fair, vice chancellor for state grants and scholarships, said the changes are too new for officials to know what their impact will be. But the only impact they could have is to reduce the number of students eligible for the program, he said.
Fair said he'd prefer to see legislators wait a few years to see what impact the previous round of changes will have before they begin making more changes.
Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, said the changes are necessary to make sure the program helps the students who need it most. Osborn, the bill's author, said Monday the changes were meant to stabilize the program and keep costs under control.
“We live in a balanced budget state, and there's only so many dollars,” she said. “At some point, we can't afford it.”
But higher education officials don't expect the cost to increase dramatically over the next few years. Officials expect the program's cost to increase from $61.3 million during the current fiscal year to $62.7 million next year — a change of about 2 percent.
Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she's concerned about the impact the bill will have. Virgin was one of 37 representatives who voted against the measure.
While the bill was being discussed on the House floor Monday, Virgin heard via social media from a number of her constituents, who were concerned the measure would keep some Oklahoma high school students from going on to college.
The program is an important way of making sure students can leave college and enter the workforce without incurring a mountain of student debt, Virgin said.
“It's a program I think has worked very well,” she said.