- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Tulsa County, Okla., is attracting the attention of educators across the country with a new scholarship program that has dramatically boosted college attendance by guaranteeing free tuition to all high school graduates.

Tulsa Achieves is among a growing number of programs nationwide that seek to boost economic growth by expanding the skilled labor force though improved access to higher education.

The Tulsa program has proved a boon for Cassidy Mays, 19, who had planned to take a year off after graduating from Union High School in Tulsa to earn money for college.

“I didn’t really have money just to fork out, so it would have been a good time to take a break,” said Mr. Mays, who is pursuing a pre-med associate degree. “There’s no telling if I would have ever gone back.”

He is not alone. Tulsa Community College has doubled its enrollment of county applicants in the past two years, from 972 in 2006 to more than 1,800 this year, said Lauren F. Brookey, the college’s vice president of external affairs.

Miss Brookey said the Tulsa Achieves scholarships will provide up to 100 percent of any county high school graduate’s tuition at the college. The program requires applicants to complete up to 63 credits in three years. Tuition costs $2,100 for full-time enrollment, which is 30 credits a year.

No new taxes were levied to pay for the program, said William Stuart Price, owner of a Tulsa energy company and vice chairman of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

Instead, the college reallocated 1 percent of its general operating budget to fund the program last year, and this year will spend just less than 2 percent of the operating budget, Miss Brookey said, adding that private donations offset the reallocated funds.

The budget comprises revenue from state and county taxes, and programs like the federal Pell Grants and the state Oklahoma’s Promise, which gives free tuition to children from families earning less than $50,000 annually.

“Our goal was to get more people into the college pipeline so that they would go on to get higher degrees and increase the number of college graduates in the area,” Miss Brookey said. “All social indicators are tied to your level of education.”

She expressed the universal goals of leaders of 80 communities in 22 states that have developed or are developing similar scholarship programs.

Such programs - sponsoring students in Pittsburgh, Denver and other localities - build on a model first tested by Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise, which ties blanket college scholarships to local economic growth, said Michelle Miller-Adams, an assistant political science professor at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

Since 2005, the Kalamazoo program has offered full-tuition scholarships to any state college or university to all graduates with at least four years in the city’s public schools, said Mrs. Miller-Adams, a visiting scholar at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo. In June, she hosted a brainstorming conference for more than 200 officials working on similar programs nationwide.

Alan Berube, a fellow and research director for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, attended the conference. He said scholarship programs like those in Tulsa and Kalamazoo make a difference by increasing enrollment in local colleges.

“What often gets left out of economic development is the factor that drives businesses and families in their location decisions, and that’s the quality of the local schools,” Mr. Berube said. “With the community college connection, you’re largely serving the people who are going to stay in the area. There’s the promise of retaining more educated adults in the region, and they’re contributing to the economic growth in Tulsa.”

One jurisdiction that doesn’t follow the Kalamazoo model is the District of Columbia, which provides tuition assistance for D.C. students to attend college anywhere in the country. For the past decade, the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program has paid the difference, up to $10,000, between in-state and out-of-state tuition for college-bound high school graduates.

But providing tuition for anyone who wants to go to college can have its drawbacks, said Frederick Hess, education policy studies director at the American Enterprise Institute. He worries about “credential inflation” - colleges lowering their academic standards to attract more students.

“We know for individuals to go to college is a good thing,” he said. “What we don’t know is whether that’s the case because you’re learning the skills or the people going to college are self-selected and you’re signaling to employers that you’re a good candidate.

“I think there’s a lot of reason to be concerned that when we broaden these pipelines to try to focus on access, there’s natural incentives for higher education … to focus on getting bodies and much less incentive to worry about quality control,” Mr. Hess said.

In Tulsa, scholarship recipients must graduate from high school with a minimum 2.0 grade point average and maintain at least a C average in college. They also must volunteer 40 hours of community service each year.

The community’s major concern is creating a skilled work force for which a college education is essential, said Thomas McKeon, president of Tulsa Community College.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.1 percent of Oklahomans 25 or older have bachelor’s degrees, well below the national average of 27 percent.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate in June was 3.9 percent, which means the state has no shortage of unskilled labor, Mr. McKeon said. The national unemployment rate is 5.7 percent.

Tulsa’s tuition program meets the community’s challenges of today while addressing its needs in the future, said Mr. Price, the energy company owner.

“College costs are getting to be out of reach for the average American family,” Mr. Price said. “I think it’s one of the most important things we can do with our dollars: educate our citizens. We can’t leave anybody behind who can’t afford it.”

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