Governor Fallin wants to boost educational attainment. President Obama has a new plan to do it.

Photo by Turner Photography.
Photo by Turner Photography.

Rosie Nelson is a former OK Policy intern and is currently a PhD student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

In the recent inaugural address for her second term, Governor Fallin said one of her top goals is to boost Oklahoma’s educational attainment. Now a new plan from President Obama provides a great opportunity to advance that goal.

Just after the New Year, President Obama unveiled his America’s College Promise proposal, which would provide a tuition waiver for two years of community college to all students attending at least half-time and maintaining a 2.5 GPA or higher. The program is modeled on the Tennessee Promise program, which was launched in 2014.

President Obama’s proposal requires approval from Congress, but if passed it would provide funding equal to three-quarters of the national average cost of community college for all participating students, with states subsidizing the remaining amount. In Oklahoma, community college tuition for 2014-15 averaged $3,493 per year. That falls slightly above the weighted national average of $3,347. Depending on student enrollment choices, spending on existing aid programs would likely cover much of the state’s required financial commitment; however, these programs may need to be restructured to allow for the greatest benefit from America’s College Promise.

The idea of waiving tuition is not at all new to Oklahoma community colleges. Tulsa Community College offers a county-based program, Tulsa Achieves, that is similar to the proposal from President Obama. Tulsa Achieves is limited to recent Tulsa County high school graduates and is a “last dollar” program, meaning that a student only receives funding from the program if other federal and state financial aid does not cover the full cost of tuition; thus, it tends to benefit students from middle-income or greater backgrounds. However, most students continue to rely on a combination of existing state and federal aid programs to pay for college.

A patchwork of state financial aid programs currently provides assistance for some—but not all—Oklahomans interested in community college or training at technical centers. Oklahoma’s Promise, or OHLAP, provides a scholarship for recent high school graduates from lower-income families if students sign up prior to completing 10th grade. Tuition grants, such as the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant, available for all institutions, and the Oklahoma Tuition Equalization Grant, a program specifically for students attending private institutions, provide modest amounts of funding to low-income students. Tuition waivers currently exist for former foster youth and for members of the National Guard, and the state provides a handful of other small scholarship opportunities, although few target community college students.

[pullquote]Students would have the option to focus on schoolwork rather than juggling both classes and full-time work to cover textbooks, materials, and living expenses.”[/pullquote]

Unlike Tulsa Achieves, America’s College Promise would provide a tuition waiver for all eligible students, regardless of other grants or scholarships received. This would create more flexibility for students struggling to pay college expenses beyond the cost of tuition. For example, students eligible for both Oklahoma’s Promise and America’s College Promise would receive the tuition waiver in addition to the amount provided by the scholarship, if they chose to attend a community college. For young adults, the combination of a community college tuition waiver, the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship, and federal financial aid funds would promote academic success, as students would have the option to focus on schoolwork rather than juggling both classes and full-time work to cover textbooks, materials, and living expenses.

The majority of existing financial aid opportunities in Oklahoma target students heading straight to postsecondary education after high school. Programs like Tulsa Achieves and Oklahoma’s Promise require students to begin college shortly after high school graduation; older students and those who need to earn money prior to attending college as a way to reduce future student loan burden often lose the opportunity to participate. For adults over 25 years old interested in returning to school, whether to gain additional skills for their current job or to pursue a new career, fewer financial aid opportunities are available, regardless of income. The lack of affordable options for these returning learners is a lost opportunity for Oklahoma to improve its workforce and attract good jobs.

States with higher levels of educational attainment see economic benefits, including attracting new employers, higher wages for all workers, and increased tax revenue; additionally, college graduates score better on measures of health, happiness, and connectedness to their communities. America’s College Promise would allow Oklahoma to invest in workforce development at a greatly reduced cost to the state and would provide greater incentives for employers to increase operations in the state.

Will it be without bumps in the road? Of course not. The state will have to evaluate existing student aid programs and determine the best strategy for ensuring that all hard-working Oklahomans have access to higher education. Yet, if the state chooses to invest in its families and its workers, the potential long-term rewards are great.

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