(OKLAHOMA CITY) The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Monday that he will make fully funding the state’s scholarship program for deserving students whose parents can’t afford to send them to college among the top priorities when the second session of the 49th Oklahoma Legislature convenes in February.
Senator Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, announced his intention to find more than $8 million in additional funding next year for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP). The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education requested the additional funding in the form of a supplemental appropriation in the current fiscal year. Morgan said such an infusion of cash in FY ’04 is unlikely, but said he is committed to finding the money in the coming fiscal year.
Morgan was joined in his announcement by Senator Herb Rozell, D-Tahlequah, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education.
“The key to ensuring Oklahoma’s economic future is to increase the number of college graduates in our state. That has to be our goal. One way to facilitate meeting that goal is to make a college education available to as many students as possible. That’s what OHLAP does and that’s why Senator Rozell and I have decided to make it a funding priority,” Morgan said.
Approximately 6,000 Oklahoma High School graduates whose parents make less than $50,000 a year are currently benefiting from the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP), which pays tuition for the students at state two- and four-year colleges and even partially pays tuition bills for qualifying students at accredited private institutions in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education estimate that number of students in the program will grow to 9,000 – including 4,200 new freshmen – next year.
“The program is a tremendous success, but with success comes growth. That growth is going to cost more money next year and Senator Morgan and I believe the Legislature has to follow through on our commitment to the students in our state and come up with the additional money,” Rozell said.
A total of $11 million was allocated to OHLAP by the Regents for Higher Education for use in Fiscal Year 2004. The increase in the number of students and anticipated increases in tuition costs will up the funding need to $19.2 million next year, Higher Education officials estimate.
“We made a commitment last year to fund education first – common education, our K-12 schools. Now it’s time for us to take the next step and ensure that the graduates of those schools have every chance to continue their education,” Morgan said.
Although state revenues have increased in recent months, both senators said they expect next year’s budget process to be every bit as tough as writing the current fiscal year’s budget was last spring.
First, lawmakers must find nearly $220 million to fill a budget gap left by one-time revenue maneuvers used to pare down reductions in appropriations for the current fiscal year. Secondly, deciding who should get new money, should there be any, won’t be an easy chore.
“After two years of cutbacks, agencies are lining up for whatever new money might be available. What we are saying today is that before we start dolling out dollars for other purposes, we’re going to find $8.2 million to fully fund OHLAP. We have to put these students first. They are our future,” Morgan said.