EDMOND — Family history and income didn't point to college for Jas'Sen Stoner.
But his teachers asked him to make that promise when he was in eighth grade, and today he's a sophomore industrial safety major at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Stoner is one of about 62,000 students who have earned the Oklahoma's Promise scholarship in the past two decades.
The program is doing more than paying his college tuition. It's giving him a chance “to make it out and become something better,” he said.
“It's hard to find a way out of poverty,” Stoner said. “It gives people like me a chance to take a swing at being successful.”
Since the Legislature established the program in 1992, nearly 133,000 students have signed up, and about 72,000 have qualified for the scholarship, according to records from the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education.
But the pool of eligible students is shrinking.
The scholarship is for families with incomes of $50,000 or less at the time the student applies for the program and not more than $100,000 at the time the student begins college.
Because the $50,000 family income limit isn't adjusted for inflation, the number of students enrolling in the program is expected to gradually decline, higher education officials say.
The U.S. Census Bureau shows 61 percent of Oklahoma families had a total income less than $50,000 in 2000, compared with 45 percent in 2012.
Making a difference
Oklahoma's Promise tops the list of programs making a difference in education statewide, said Glen Johnson, the state's higher education chancellor.
Compared with other students, the scholarship recipients have higher high school GPAs, higher ACT scores, higher freshman college GPAs and higher college graduation rates, Johnson said.
And 92 percent of those who graduate from college have jobs in the state one year out, compared with 87 percent of other graduates, he said.
“It has changed the landscape,” Johnson said.
The promise works both ways.
Students promise to prepare academically for college and stay out of trouble.
In return, the state promises to help pay their college tuition at an Oklahoma public institution.
“And that's huge,” Johnson said.
“It's motivation. It gives them a pathway to understand they can do it.”
Students sign up in eighth, ninth or 10th grade, which gives them goals to strive for all during high school, Johnson said.
Making a promise
Stoner, 20, said he and his eighth-grade classmates were pushed to sign up for the program by the teachers and coaches at Douglass Mid-High School. So he did.
They kept after him to make sure he was taking the necessary classes and making the grades.
“Jas'Sen was one of the hardest working students I ever had,” senior English teacher Brenda Griggs said.
“He tried so hard on every task that was given.”
Not only that, but he sought feedback and accepted criticism because he wanted to better himself, Griggs said.
By the time he graduated in 2012, he had earned the scholarship.
It was a life-changer.
“My parents couldn't pay for college,” Stoner said. “It was big relief for my grandmother. She was more excited about it than I was.”
Making the grade
Today, Stoner plays outside linebacker for UCO and works to earn that degree in industrial safety. His goals are to play professional football and be a fire inspector.
The coaches stress that student comes first in “student-athlete,” and push him and his teammates to study and get a degree.
“They are molding us to become better men,” he said.
Oklahoma's Promise and a Don and Shigeko Burget Athletic Scholarship have alleviated the worry about money and allowed him to stay focused on his studies.
Stoner said his GPA is about 3.5.
“I appreciate the chance,” said Stoner, one of about 18,900 students currently receiving the tuition scholarship.
He wants to succeed not just for himself and his family, but as an example for “the people on my side of town,” he said.
“I want to just crawl up out of this pit that we're in right now and get out of the cycle of poverty.”