Program Profile: Oklahoma's Promise

March 11, 2016

By Liz Glaser – Graduate Research Assistant

In Oklahoma, the state legislature and higher education authorities have taken strides over the past two decades to increase college enrollment and completion throughout the state, especially among low-income students. At the inception of the Oklahoma's Promise in 1992, the state legislature appropriated funds for students to apply for tuition assistance to attend approved Oklahoma universities. Bryce Fair, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Scholarships and Grants at the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (Regents), has been responsible for Oklahoma's Promise since its creation. He caught me up on their history and program highlights.

During the 90s, state legislators from Tulsa were concerned about students in urban districts not having the same college access opportunities as students in different districts. Also, because Oklahoma was significantly below the US average in college attainment levels, these legislators developed a plan to offer tuition assistance to encourage students to complete college. Hoping to inspire college going, especially among low-income and minority students, the legislature approved this new plan.  OK's Promise was born from these leaders, and has consistently provided tuition aid for over 20 years.

Drawing inspiration from a variety of programs, including Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars, tuition assistance is earned by signing a commitment in eighth, ninth, or tenth grade. Students must fulfill certain requirements to be eligible for the scholarship, which is full tuition at public institutions and a portion of tuition at private institutions. These requirements include an income under $50,000, a high school GPA of 2.5, taking specified required courses through high school, and maintaining good behavior. The full list can be found here. Fair explained that most students earn a higher GPA than the required minimum, and the course requirements were developed to align with admission requirements, ensuring that participating students were adequately prepared to start college. The income limit actually started out in 1992 at $24,000, but in 1999, the legislature raised the limit to accommodate more students, capping it at $32,000. In 2000, the $50,000 ceiling was put in place - currently nearly 42% of families in Oklahoma earn below the $50,000 threshold (based on US Census data), and the legislature believes that Oklahoma's Promise can protect low-income as well as middle-income families.

Politically, OK's Promise has remained highly favored on both sides of the spectrum. Republicans and Democrats both support the Promise, so even through recessions and ideological shifts in the legislature; the money has consistently been appropriated. Fair noted that Oklahoma has “never had a year that any student did not get their tuition when they fulfilled their commitment.” To ensure money was appropriated, in 2004 legislation passed that earmarked 12 percent of gambling revenues to be used specifically for the Promise. Several years ago, legislators who were concerned about budgetary constraints proposed a compromise to ensure that the Promise is being delivered to students who truly need it and Oklahoma approved a “second income check.” The check requires a FAFSA, which helps students also access Pell Grants and other state aid; the FAFSA completion rate in Oklahoma is fairly high.  This step takes place before a student matriculates, and the state verifies that the family’s income hasn’t grown to be over $100,000 annually since the initial commitment.

Oklahoma's Promise is available to students beginning in eighth grade, and the requirements guide students to make the right choices in and out of the classroom so they are best prepared for college. Because the Regents oversee the Promise for the entire state, there is not a coordinated system of college access services offered to students across the state. Schools are encouraged to work with their students on applying for and sticking to the Promise. About twice a year, texts or voicemails are sent to the students that remind them to stay on track and encourage their success, which Fair said have been a fairly effective nudge.

Fair noted that the implementation of the Promise has been fairly straightforward. Students may sign up either online or through a paper application, and the paperwork is submitted directly to the Regents office. The office utilizes partnerships with passionate guidance counselors and a few local organizations, but the system is mainly a direct relationship between students and the Regents. Paperwork is necessary, but limited; Fair pointed out that the FAFSA is required for the second income check, and the initial application, high school transcripts, and few other documents are necessary to ensure that the scholarship is sent to the appropriate recipient. Because the Promise is first-dollar and covers only tuition, the FAFSA requirement for the second income check has also helped students to qualify and receive Pell Grants and other state financial aid to cover other costs.

In the 2014-2015 annual report, the Promise found that the number of award recipients has been decreasing, although college completion rates are increasing (pg 11). This is a result of a variety of factors, such as families earning over the income threshold, but the Promise is encouraged to see that students who benefit from the Promise actually attain their college degree. One graph on page  9 even shows that OK's Promise students are at 87% college-going rates, as compared to the non-OK Promise students who are only at 44% - this is nearly double the rate of college-going. Budget constraints and college tuition increases pose a challenge to the Promise, but the state legislators and administrators have proven that they are dedicated to the mission of helping low-income and middle-income students graduate. 

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