IF we reached back into history and made a list of legislation that proved itself visionary, the creation of the Oklahoma's Promise college scholarship program would rank somewhere near the top. So it's difficult not to get a little antsy when lawmakers start talking — as they do most every year — about tinkering with the program.
One such effort this year is Rep. Leslie Osborn's bill to reduce the number of students who qualify for the program. House Bill 1721 passed the House this week but still must get past the Senate. Here's the first question senators should ask: What's the rush?
Since 2003, more than 136,000 Oklahoma students have attended college or another post-secondary education program with the help of a state-funded scholarship. Students have three years after high school to start college; the scholarships are good for up to five years of undergraduate tuition at an Oklahoma college or university or qualifying public technology center.
Students can sign up for Oklahoma's Promise in eighth, ninth or 10th grades if their family's annual income is $50,000 or less. To remain eligible for a scholarship, students must take college-preparatory classes and stay out of trouble.
A few years ago, lawmakers added new requirements in effect for the first time this school year. The changes include a second income check as students enter college and higher GPA requirements in college courses. If the family annual income of an otherwise qualified student hits $100,000 before the student starts college, the student is no longer eligible for a scholarship.
The changes are too new to fully grasp the impact. Doing more tinkering before understanding the fallout of the changes just implemented seems unwise.
The bill by Osborn, R-Mustang, supposes the $100,000 amount is too high, and the House-approved version cuts it to $60,000; Much of the House discussion focused on the $100,000 instead of the fact that $50,000 remains the initial qualification. We doubt many people double their salaries over a few years' time.
Osborn's premise that Oklahoma's Promise is an entitlement program should be rejected. In reality, it's an opportunity program and an investment in motivated young people who, in bettering themselves, better the state. Students must do their fair share of work throughout high school to become eligible for a scholarship and then through four or five years of college to retain it.
Oklahoma's Promise recipients go to college at a substantially higher rate than their peers. They require less remediation. They stay in school at a better rate, post higher GPAs and complete degrees at a higher rate.
No doubt the program is expensive. The scholarships are estimated to cost about $63 million this fiscal year. Osborn fancies herself savior of the program, but the only threat to the program is short-sighted lawmakers. She and others seem unimpressed with the process that funds the scholarships before any other government function, providing a good example of why a past Legislature saw fit to levy such protection.
In 2003, roughly 58 percent of Oklahoma families could qualify based on the $50,000 income limit. Now that number stands at about 46 percent. The scholarship program's income limit doesn't account for inflation.
Last school year marked the first time in the program's history that the number of scholarship recipients decreased compared with the prior year. The number is expected to fall again this year and next year.
Lawmakers shouldn't focus so much on immediate cost containment that they forget to look at the very real future costs of an undereducated citizenry.