A measure that seeks to expand a state scholarship program would help Oklahoma keep pace with demand for qualified workers, state officials said.
Senate Bill 432 would expand Oklahoma's Promise to cover students pursuing certain industry certificates through CareerTech centers or state colleges or universities.
In its current form, the program 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, and it applies only to students who are seeking a college degree.
Under the current rules, eighth through 10th-graders who apply for the scholarship must show 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 would expand the program to offer scholarships to students pursuing industry certifications in areas the Oklahoma Department of Commerce has identified as critical.
The bill includes a request for up to $10 million in funding for the first year. It passed the Senate by a 42-1 vote on March 6, and is now in the House Appropriations and Budget Committee.
Commerce department spokesman Don Hackler said the measure would help the state train workers in areas where the department projects growing demand, particularly in engineering-related fields. For Oklahoma's economy to continue to grow, it will be more important for the state to keep up with industry demand for trained workers, he said.
Oklahoma education officials have made a concerted effort recently to improve the state's college and vocational education completion numbers. Gov. Mary Fallin has called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years. That goal is part of Complete College America, a nationwide initiative designed to boost college completion.
The state is showing signs of progress as a result of the initiative, Hackler said, but commerce officials hope to see further improvement.
“We think this bill can help us accelerate our improvement,” he said.
Sen. John Ford, R-Bartlesville, said he thinks the bill will go a long way to address the state's deficit in workers who are prepared for the economy of the future.
Ford, the bill's author, cited a Commerce Department analysis that shows only 18 percent of the new jobs created in Oklahoma between 2010 and 2020 will require no postsecondary education, while nearly 50 percent will require some form of postsecondary education below a bachelor's degree, including associate degrees and industry certifications.
“That's kind of the opposite of what we're putting out in our schools today,” Ford said.
Most of the certification tracks the scholarship would affect are yearlong programs, and generally cost about $3,500 to complete. Under the scholarship program, the institution would receive half of the student's scholarship money during the first semester, then another 40 percent during the second semester.
The institution would receive the final 10 percent when the student graduates and receives a certificate.
“Everybody has a little skin in the game,” Ford said. “To me, it is an immediate win.”