It’s often said that if something’s not broken, don’t fix it. An even more basic principle is that if something’s not broken, don’t break it.
Oklahoma lawmakers this session risk violating this commonsense principle with legislation, Senate Bill 639, that would cause irreparable damage to one of the state’s most successful and worthwhile programs, Oklahoma’s Promise.
The program, also known as the Oklahoma Higher Access Learning Program, bridges the opportunity gap by offering free college tuition for students from families with household incomes below $55,000 a year. Oklahoma’s Promise helped close to 16,000 students attend one of Oklahoma’s two- and four-year colleges and universities in 2018-19.
A report issued just last month by the Legislature’s own watchdog agency, the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT), heaped praise on Oklahoma’s Promise. It found that the program is supporting 4,000 graduates per year, with three in four earning degrees that are aligned with Oklahoma’s critical workforce demands and the vast majority (85%) are employed in-state after graduation.
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The program has been especially effective in reaching underrepresented populations, including racial and ethnic minorities and students from Oklahoma’s rural communities. It is no surprise, then, that the Southern Regional Education Board found Oklahoma’s Promise to be one of the top college access programs in the nation.
Students must meet a wide range of requirements to become eligible for Oklahoma’s Promise and once accepted, must maintain good academic standing and make satisfactory academic progress toward their degree to maintain eligibility.
But under SB 639, which has passed the Oklahoma Senate and now awaits action by the House, any student who fails to earn a degree within six years of entering college would be forced to repay the full amount of the scholarship to the post-secondary institution in which the student was enrolled.
This clawback proposal would fundamentally transform Oklahoma’s Promise. Many high school students from low- and moderate-income students will surely choose not to sign up for the program in the first place if they know that completing their degree will be a high-stakes gamble with a huge penalty assessed for failure.
If students from modest circumstances start college and then decide they must withdraw — due to family circumstances, health challenges or just because college turns out not to be right for them — should they be burdened with thousands of dollars in repayment obligations?
The bill’s author has pointed to the low graduation rates of Oklahoma Promise recipients to justify the legislation. It is true that between 2004 and 2014, the average 5-year graduation rate for Oklahoma Promise recipients was only 41%, according to the LOFT report.
But this is actually nearly 10 points higher than the 5-year graduation rate of their student peers (33%) and higher than the graduation rates for students participating in similar programs in New York state and Washington state.
It is worth noting that while LOFT endorses efforts by the State Regents for Higher Education to improve college graduation rates, it did not suggest that those who don’t complete their degrees be hit with a payback penalty.
Oklahoma’s Promise is making college more affordable and more accessible for thousands of Oklahoma students, providing the opportunity for many to be the first in their families to attend college and helping the state meets its goals for a better educated and trained workforce.
If lawmakers are concerned about college completion rates, let’s focus on developing strategies and policies to provide students the help they need to succeed.
Imposing a draconian clawback provision that will discourage students from attending college at all and compound the cost of failure is not the way to go.