House bill threatens Oklahoma’s Promise

Photo by CollegeDegrees360 / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by CollegeDegrees360 / CC BY-SA 2.0

In today’s economy, a college education is more important for finding a good job and earning a decent income. Yet for children of low- and moderate-income families, the cost of higher education can be a substantial barrier to enrolling in and completing college. Over the past two decades, the Oklahoma’s Promise financial aid program has been the key for thousands of students to get a college degree – but legislation being considered this session could put the program out of reach for many students.

Oklahoma’s Promise, also known as the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, or OHLAP, is an early commitment financial aid program that covers tuition for students with family income below $50,000 at the time of application. Students must apply prior to the start of the 11th grade and complete a series of requirements before graduating from high school. Once enrolled in college, students must maintain a minimum GPA and follow behavioral guidelines.

OHLAP is a valuable resource for students interested in post-secondary education, as Rosie Nelson has explained:

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… 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.

There were 18,919 students enrolled in Oklahoma’s Promise in 2013-14, which is about 10 percent of total public higher education enrollment. The number of college and high school students enrolled in the program has been declining steadily in recent years, a decline that the Regents for Higher Education attribute to the lack of an inflation adjustment to the income eligibility limit and to stricter academic progress standards enacted by the Legislature.

Legislation proposed the past two years by Speaker Jeff Hickman could limit participation in Oklahoma’s Promise even further by adding stringent courseload requirements. This session, Hickman proposed HB 2180, which would require Oklahoma’s Promise students enrolled in a four-year institution to complete a minimum of 30 earned credit hours per academic year. At 15 hours per semester, Oklahoma Promise students would be required to take three credits more per semester than the threshold for being a full-time student. Exceptions would be granted only under fairly narrow circumstances, including a medical or family emergency or academic requirements that preclude taking 15 hours per semester.

This push to impose a strict courseload requirement seems to emerge from concerns that scholarship recipients are not taking enough courses or making proper progress towards their degrees. Yet there is no data to support the idea that Oklahoma’s Promise students are lagging behind. A full 94 percent of OKPromise students entering college were enrolled full-time in the fall or spring semester, according to data from the State Regents. These students consistently have a freshman-to-sophomore persistence rate and a degree completion rate that is ten percentage points higher than non-OKPromise students.

The proposed 30-hour annual courseload requirement has raised strong concerns from advocates for foster children and other low-income kids, who point out that many students face barriers that make this more-than-full courseload unreasonable. As one advocate noted in a letter to Rep. Hickman,

They must address all of the challenges any college youth faces, but they still carry their trauma, family ‘legacies’ and worries, and lack of supportive and sufficient relationships and resources with them… The 15 credit-hour requirement inadvertently stigmatizes the already disadvantaged student by adding additional pressure (and consequences) not present for other youth and inadvertently contributes to their lifetime of inadequate supports.

Fortunately, the Senate has proposed a number of positive changes to the version of HB 2180 that passed the House. Under the Senate version:

  • the annual courseload requirement would be 24 hours per year rather than 30;
  • an exception could be granted to students who work 15 hours or more per week; and
  • a student failing to meet the courseload requirement would be given a year’s probation, rather than being dropped from Oklahoma’s Promise.

In addition, the Senate version adds a sensible requirement that students participating in OHLAP be assigned an advisor to develop a course plan to help ensure they meet their courseload requirements.

HB 2180 will likely be sent to conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate versions will be reconciled. Those who are committed to promoting successful college experiences for all students willing to do the work should do whatever they can to see that the Senate version prevails.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

3 thoughts on “House bill threatens Oklahoma’s Promise

  1. How long are normal Oklahomans going to tolerate the mess our elected “representatives” are making? You can’t look at one area of public run sectors in our state and be proud. Big out-of-state money lobbying efforts are sucking our state dry.

    I’m an educator and I’m ashamed. Rather than stand up to these bullies we cower down and say nothing. Tax cuts? Really?

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