This post was written by OK Policy summer intern Rosie Nelson. Rosie has an MA in Higher Education from the University of Mississippi and will begin a PhD program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education starting this fall.
Recently, the Oklahoma legislature attempted to divert funds from the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Plan to fill a budget hole. After a public outcry and Attorney General opinion that the transfer was unconstitutional, state leaders backed off the plan. The scholarship program that was threatened is more than just money for college—it’s a commitment to Oklahoma’s future. Through the program, Oklahoma promises tuition funds will be available for hard-working, committed students that want to continue their education after high school.
But how does it work—and why is it so important for low- and middle-income Oklahomans? The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Plan, better known as OHLAP or Oklahoma’s Promise, is an early commitment financial aid program. Students interested in receiving the scholarship must apply in 8th, 9th, or 10th grade—years before starting college—and complete a series of requirements before graduating from high school.
Early commitment programs allow students and families to anticipate college costs and potential financial aid. Students who participate know that they will receive the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship as long as they fulfill the requirements of the program, while other financial aid programs may be changed, reduced, or eliminated before the student starts college. Oklahoma is one of only a handful of states with early commitment programs, and goes beyond what many states provide by targeting low-income students, ensuring that scholarships will be available as promised, and allowing funds to be used for additional expenses beyond tuition. While Oklahoma doesn’t get widespread national attention about its promise program, OHLAP is a valuable resource for students interested in academic or vocational postsecondary education.
One potential barrier to higher education is the perception that college is unaffordable, particularly for low-income students. The Oklahoma’s Promise program aims to increase access to college and vocational training by ensuring that, at a minimum, funding for tuition will be available to committed low-income students who are academically qualified. Beyond tuition scholarships, OHLAP was intended to provide a structure for support services in high school to prepare students for future college success.
To qualify for Oklahoma’s Promise, their family income must be less than $50,000 per year when they sign up, regardless of size—the income cap doesn’t increase if a family has several children, for example, even if those children may attend college at the same time. The program represents a promise between the State of Oklahoma and the student: if the student completes required college prep courses, earns a minimum GPA, and follows behavioral guidelines, then the state will provide a scholarship for the amount of tuition (excluding additional enrollment fees) at any Oklahoma public college or university.
If the student chooses to attend a private institution in Oklahoma, the state will provide a scholarship for a portion of the cost, comparable to the amount of tuition at a public university. Students choosing to attend college or receive vocational training outside of Oklahoma will not receive any funding from Oklahoma’s Promise. Recipients must also pass a second income check at the start of their postsecondary education; at that time, their family income cannot exceed $100,000. Students have up to three years after graduating from high school to start using the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship, and they are eligible to receive funds for up to five years or until they complete a bachelor’s degree.
Unlike many tuition aid programs in other states, Oklahoma’s Promise is a cash scholarship. For example, if a student receives a full tuition waiver, that student can still receive a scholarship from Oklahoma’s Promise to help with living expenses, books, and supplies as long as their total financial aid package doesn’t exceed the school’s estimated cost of attendance. Oklahoma’s Promise can be combined with federal financial aid funds such as Pell grants and other state programs such as the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant (OTAG).
OHLAP requires recipients to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a document which determines eligibility for federal financial aid programs and is used in Oklahoma to identify recipients for OTAG and other need-based state financial aid programs. Connecting OHLAP to the FAFSA provides students with a guarantee of some non-loan-based aid for their time while allowing them to qualify for additional grants or loans.
Oklahoma’s Promise is an opportunity for students to secure financial aid prior to applying for college. It provides an incentive for students to remain in Oklahoma for college, helping them to remain connected to their home communities and perhaps reducing outmigration from rural areas. It encourages students that might otherwise have opted-out to pursue higher education, whether in the form of an academic degree or a vocational program. When supported with college success programming at high schools, OHLAP can significantly increase access to higher education for Oklahoma residents. Yet Oklahoma can do more to identify what elements of OHLAP work best and what could be improved. We owe it to future generations of Oklahomans to evaluate OHLAP’s successes and find ways to increase participation, ensuring that all students have the chance to gain job skills and pursue a degree.