The Oklahoma Legislature is close to passing a bill (SB 529) to make Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships available to more students. Available since 1996, these scholarships cover the cost of tuition for in-state students at an Oklahoma public college or university if students complete a series of college-readiness requirements before high school graduation and maintain a passing GPA once in college.

Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships have become a critical part of college planning for low and moderate income Oklahoma families as they are guaranteed to students who meet the income guidelines and complete the requirements.  Expanding access to the program is necessary if Oklahoma wants to compete in the new economy where most high-paying jobs require advanced education.

Currently, students are eligible for the scholarship if their family’s income is below $50,000 at the time they apply.  SB 529 would raise the income limit to $55,000 in 2017-2018 and then to $60,000 in 2021-2022.  SB 529 has passed both the House and Senate, but the Senate still needs to approve House amendments or work out the language in conference committee. The bill is close to the finish line, which is good news for college-bound students and for the whole state.

Why the income limit needs to be raised

The current income limit of $55,000 was set in 2000.  At that time, 61 percent of Oklahoma families had income below the limit.  But in 2015, only 42 percent of Oklahoma families had income of less than $50,000. As time goes on, fewer Oklahoma students will be eligible for the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship unless the income limit is raised.

And we do see fewer students benefiting from these scholarships.  Use of the scholarships peaked in 2012, when 10,635 students enrolled in the program.  Since that year, there has been a consistent decline in the number of students enrolling.

Our policy in this area simply hasn’t kept pace with inflation. According to the Consumer Price Index, a family making $50,000 in 2000 would need to make $71, 930 in 2017 to maintain the same purchasing power.  Because Oklahoma hasn’t increased our income limit for the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship, we’ve been denying eligibility to students that we intended to benefit from the program. 

Oklahoma’s Promise recipients are a good investment

Oklahoma students who receive the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship are more likely than students who didn’t to…

  • go to college (87 percent compared to 44 percent)
  • return for their sophomore year (81 percent compared to 74 percent)
  • be full-time students (94 percent compared to 88 percent)
  • complete a college degree (57 percent compared to 46 percent)

Oklahoma’s Promise students are more likely to complete college with the added support offered by the scholarship, and that’s important. As of 2013, less than one-fourth of Oklahoma students at 4-year public universities were completing college in four years, and less than half were completing their degree in six years. By reducing the financial burdens of college Oklahoma’s Promise helps students to focus on studying and finishing their degree, making sure that our investments in these students are not wasted.

And this is an investment that will not add to this year’s budget shortfall — the students who qualify for the program under the expanded $55,00 income cap won’t begin attending college until the fall of 2020, and those who qualify under the $60,000 cap won’t be starting college until the fall of 2024.

Increased access to college education benefits us all

Of course, the benefits of a college education to the individual are easy to spot.  Individuals who went to college earn more than those who didn’t, they are more likely to have jobs that offer benefits (like health insurance and retirement plans), and they have better job security.

But degrees are not just good for the individuals who get them. Increasing the number of college graduates benefits whole communities. College grads are less likely to be unemployed, and their income is generally higher than their non-college educated counterparts, so they contribute more in taxes. College educated people are generally healthier – they are less likely to smoke, less likely to be overweight, and more likely to get regular exercise. They are also more civically engaged – they are more likely to volunteer and to vote. Perhaps because these trends create “spillover effects” of wealth in a community, research has even found that an increase of the supply of college graduates also raises wages for high school drop-outs and those with only a high school degree.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma is missing out on those benefits compared to most other states. In Oklahoma, only 24 percent of adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher – 41 states have a higher percentage of college grads than we do.

We can do better. Allowing more students to receive Oklahoma’s Promise will pay off for all of us.