Bill to provide two years of tuition for low-income students passes House
By Robert Green
A bill sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owen, District 58, of Fountain Green, to pay for tuition and fees of low income students for the first two years of college has passed the House of Representatives by a large vote, 69-3, on Feb. 21.
The bill, HB 260, creates the “Access Utah Promise Scholarship” program to cover the costs of qualifying students when federal grants fall short. It applies to students attending state colleges in the first four semesters, said Olivia Hanson, Rep. Owen’s legislative intern.
Adults returning to school with less than an associate degree can also apply for the scholarship and the bill contains a workforce component for qualified employees.
In a flyer promoting his bill, Owens stated that Utah has a pipeline problem: “It is increasingly hard in Utah to fill unmet workforce needs with folks not participating in the workforce; there’s a lot of slack.
“Utah has one of the lowest rates at which ninth graders are likely to get a postsecondary degree on time of any state in the country.”
Owens also promotes the scholarships as “last dollar in,” meaning they require recipients to use all other scholarship and aid opportunities first.
The bill now moves onto the Senate where it has a good chance of passing, Hanson said. “But you never know.” The Senate version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, majority leader from Cedar City and the proposal has many other co-sponsors. The bill is waiting to be heard in the Senate Education Committee.
Funding sources for “Access Utah” are still being debated and the numbers are being worked out, Hanson said. The bill initially sought a one-time appropriation of $30 million from the education fund, but the financing will likely be amended, Hanson said.
The bill is the brainchild of Rep. Owens and Sen. Vickers who have thought about this issue for over a year as they served together as appropriations chairs for higher education, Hanson said. Serving six years as a high school counselor, Rep. Owens knows very well the challenges students face in preparing for college, especially in rural areas, she said.
Owens believes the Regents’ scholarship has had some excellent impact, but it has left many students behind, Hanson wrote in an email. “In rural areas, such as Sanpete County, even after 10 years of the scholarship we still face significant equity hurdles when it comes to courses like foreign language and science offerings.”
So in addition to making it easier for low income students, the bill also make changes to the Regents’ scholarship program, Hanson wrote. The Regents’ scholarship will stay in place, with the same requirements as before, with just a few changes. The Regents’ will only be used towards tuition and fees as a “last-dollar in,” and it is no longer eligible to be used at out of state colleges.
Access Utah will be created as an addition to the Regents’ and New Century scholarships. The application for the new scholarship will be simple: Students receive the scholarship by applying for federal student aid and showing need. It will be eligible for use at technical colleges.
The bill is broadly supported by Utah state university presidents and the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) wrote on its webpage that it favors the bill because it is patterned after successful initiatives tried at Weber State and Salt Lake Community College, which cover “last dollar” scholarships for low-income students who take classes full time.
USHE published a letter of support for HB 260, stating: “We applaud Representative Owens’ House Bill 260, the Access Utah Promise Scholarship, which proposes taking proven financial aid programs like SLCC Promise and Dream Weber statewide.
These scholarship programs, which help pay the remaining college costs for qualifying students when federal grants fall short, are showing compelling results: Dream Weber students graduate college at significantly higher rates than non-Dream Weber students at Weber State University.”