OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill moving through the legislature would require students in a popular state-funded scholarship to pay back the money if they don’t complete the program in six years.
Senate Bill 639, by Senate Education Chairman Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, passed last week by a vote of 36-9, but not without passionate debate.
The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, called Oklahoma’s Promise, provides scholarships to qualified students. They must be an Oklahoma resident, enroll in eighth, ninth or 10th grade and come from a family where the adjusted federal gross income does not exceed $55,000 a year.
Created in 1992, the program requires students to meet academic and conduct requirements in high school.
It currently covers CareerTech programs that qualify for federal aid in addition to college. The bill would expand that to cover CareerTech courses that correlated to critical occupation areas identified by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce executive director.
But the bill’s requirement that students repay the funds if they don’t complete the program in six years came under fire by Democrats. The clawback provision has some exceptions for hardships to be determined at the local university, college or CareerTech level.
Those dollars would be returned to the scholarship program to fund additional aid for students, Pugh said.
In the last decade, OHLAP has had a completion rate of 53 percent, Pugh said, adding that it is one of the lowest in the country.
If his bill would have been law during that same time, another $252 million would have gone back into the scholarship fund, Pugh said.
Students already in the program would be grandfathered in and not be subject to the clawback provisions, Pugh said.
Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, called the bill oppressive, saying some students face graduation barriers such as a lack of transportation.
Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, said she is a former counselor who obtained financial information so students could qualify.
She said that the bill tells her that if a child is from a single parent, divorced or broken family, she will have to tell them that if they take the scholarship, they are signing a debt.
“This is a loan,” she said. “This is not a scholarship.”
Pugh had this to say about criticism of the bill: “We have got to stop with the bigotry of low expectations in this building.”
He said counselors should tell students that the state is investing in them and they have an obligation to complete the program.
He said taxpayers should not foot the bill for those who show up the first year in college and can’t handle it.
“Yes, this bill does put some expectations on people,” Pugh said. “What is wrong with that? Let’s raise the bar, not lower it.”
He said the bill creates additional opportunities that don’t currently exist.
Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, said he is still paying for her college education, which makes her appreciate it even more.
“I would ask that you support this bill because I think it makes students invest in their own future and I believe that when students invest in themselves they have a greater chance of success,” Garvin said.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said the measure discourages students from even trying in the first place.
A lot of things can happen to college students that requires them to drop out or take a break, Floyd said.
According to the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, the scholarship program on average generates 4,000 graduates per year for the state’s workforce. Between 2013-2018, recipients received on average a total scholarship of $18,188, according to LOFT.