Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship program succeeding in making college a reality for low-income students | Education

Oklahoma’s Promise has come a long way in helping low-income students achieve a college degree since the tuition scholarship program’s inception almost three decades ago.

More than 85,000 high school graduates have received the scholarship during that time, according to the Oklahoma’s Promise 2017-18 Year End Report. The program, which is administered by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, allows qualifying students whose families earn at most $55,000 annually an opportunity to receive free tuition.

Further, 73.6 percent of students in the program’s 2018 graduating class completed the rigorous high school academic requirements to earn the scholarship, the highest level in its history.

That number hovered around 65 percent until 2013, when it began a gradual climb to where it is now. The nearly 10 percent increase over a six-year period suggests a significant growth in public trust, said Bryce Fair, the state higher education system’s associate vice chancellor for grants and scholarships.

“We hope it indicates there’s a sense of confidence and certainty that if the students and parents do their part, then this program will be there when they need it,” Fair said. “That credibility is very tough to earn, and it takes time and consistency.”

Although the number of enrolled students who end up receiving the scholarship is rising, overall enrollment in Oklahoma’s Promise has been declining.

Data shows enrollment has decreased each year since the program’s largest class in 2016, for which about 10,600 students enrolled. Of those students, 65 percent qualified for the tuition aid.

A recent review performed by the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization working to improve education in 16 states, noted that the shrinking enrollment could be explained by demographic changes.

The review describes a “dramatic decline” in the estimated percent of Oklahoma families with a total income under $50,000. In 2017, the Legislature raised the family income limit for enrolling in the program to $55,000 from $50,000.

State officials estimate that the new income limit will increase the number of students potentially eligible to participate in Oklahoma’s Promise from 40 percent to about 45 percent.

The first students under the higher income limit graduate from high school in 2020. Fair said preliminary enrollment numbers show an increase of 8 percent to 10 percent.

An increase to $60,000 is expected to begin with applications during the 2021-22 school year.

For the most part, the Southern Regional Education Board praised the program’s success and called it a “sound and effective example of how a state can invest valuable resources in its students and see a strong return on that investment.”

The organization’s review found that Oklahoma’s Promise recipients surpass their peers in nearly every measure from high school through college. Scholarship recipients are more likely to enroll in college and seek employment in Oklahoma after graduation.

They’re also more likely to graduate from college, though more than half of all Oklahoma students reportedly withdraw before earning a degree. The review placed five-year completion rates for Promise students at 41 percent, compared to 35 percent for non-Promise students, and six-year-completion rates at 45 percent and 39 percent respectively.

“We still think the program is clearly showing value, that these predominantly lower-income students are still outperforming those who are not in the program, which includes all the higher-income students,” Fair said.

As a first-generation college student, state Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, said she never could have afforded college without Oklahoma’s Promise.

Munson credits the scholarship for her political success. That’s why she’s been a vocal supporter of the program, often participating in the annual Oklahoma’s Promise Day events at the state Capitol.

“Obviously, I did not come from a family with money or wealth and no political involvement outside of voting,” she said. “It’s important to see the investment in what it does for students like me. The most powerful thing I can do as a legislator is work to expand the program.”

Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton, said the scholarship gave him the means to enroll at Cameron University and later transfer to the University of Oklahoma.

“It enables folks that might not have otherwise thought about going to college or felt they didn’t have the financial means to do so,” Montgomery said. “It gives them a leg up to hopefully have a successful academic career and a fulfilling professional career.”

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