JAWS undoubtedly dropped on college campuses across Oklahoma when Gov. Mary Fallin proposed a nearly $50 million cut in the higher education budget for the coming fiscal year. But money isn’t the only concern of college officials this year.
Like other functions of state government, higher ed isn’t immune to legislators’ knack for getting distracted by bills that don’t serve the state and its people all that well.
For years, higher ed has been fighting legislation to allow guns on campuses. This year’s no different. Last week, the state House passed a bill that could allow licensed handgun owners to carry weapons on campus without prior written consent. Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, said the bill also would give school authorities freedom to ban weapons from campus.
Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, warned that the bill was a bad idea. A former college dean, McPeak described a time he successfully disarmed a drunk college student who was carrying a shotgun. “My students normally made good decisions until they consumed alcohol. Then their decisions weren’t so good anymore,” he said.
While that’s far from the best defense we’ve heard for a ban of guns on campus except under special circumstances with the written permission of administrators, McPeak’s concerns aren’t without merit. In fact, protecting college campuses is one of higher ed’s chief legislative agenda items.
“There is no scenario in which allowing guns on campuses will do anything other than create a more dangerous environment for our students, faculty and visitors,” according to the legislative agenda posted on the state regents’ website. “In the past six legislative sessions, bills have either been introduced or discussed that would allow guns on campus. Each attempt has been successfully defeated ... ensuring similar legislation does not become law will continue to be a state system priority.”
The Oklahoma’s Promise college scholarship program for low- to middle-income families also seems a perennial target of perhaps well-meaning but misguided lawmakers. This year, at least one bill would have the effect of further restricting access to the program to students who may need it the most.
In a news release, House Speaker Jeff Hickman explained his proposed changes to the program would require scholarship recipients to carry 30 credit hours of coursework annually. He said the change would encourage students to be more efficient, and ultimately, more successful at obtaining a degree. For some students, Hickman might be right. But at what cost?
Oklahoma’s Promise covers up to five years of tuition at qualifying schools for students who stay out of trouble and keep their grades up. When they apply for the program in eighth, ninth or 10th grades, their family income can’t exceed $50,000 annually (an amount that hasn’t changed since 2003).
Students are still saddled with ever-increasing fees and the other costs of attending college. Many have jobs to cover those costs, not to mention that some students help support their families. Still, 90 percent of Oklahoma’s Promise recipients already carry a full-time load of 12 credit hours per semester (a rate higher than the 75 percent of their peers who carry a full-time load).
Year after year, Oklahoma’s Promise has demonstrated its success in helping students of lesser means get a college education. Recipients are better prepared for college, have far higher college-going rates, require less remedial coursework and have higher degree-completion rates than their peers.
Hickman’s idea might look good on paper, but it could be a disservice to students the state recognizes as already facing special challenges to obtaining a diploma. They don’t need additional barriers.