As Opportunity Scholarship program grows, the state’s waiting list shortens

More than 6,000 college students will get a share of Idaho’s Opportunity Scholarship money this fall, up nearly 50 percent from a year ago.

The state is putting a record sum of money into the scholarship program, and the bigger budget is making a difference. The state is cutting into its scholarship waiting list — but some qualified students still are missing out.

The Opportunity Scholarship provides up to $3,500 a year for eligible students attending Idaho colleges. It’s one of several multimillion-dollar programs the state is using to try to help high school graduates continue their education — a chronic challenge that state leaders have tried to address for nearly a decade.

The 2019 Legislature put $20.5 million into the scholarship program, a $7 million increase. The State Board of Education is still collecting this year’s numbers, and the figures are fluid. So here’s what we know, based on numbers through early October, and what we don’t know.

The overall numbers. All told, 6,045 students will receive scholarships. That number includes 3,500 new scholarships for first-year students. The remaining scholarships will go to returning students.

A year ago, the state awarded 4,083 scholarships, including 1,930 to new students.

The “adult learner” scholarship. This is the term the State Board uses now — instead of “adult completer” — to describe scholarships for older stopout students who are hoping to return to college.

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Regardless of the terminology, the scholarship is growing, but not by big numbers. This fall, Idaho awarded 80 adult learner scholarships, up from 27 scholarships the first year.

Supporters say the adult scholarships are a key to boosting Idaho’s stagnant college completion rates. Critics have said the adult scholarships place an added demand on limited scholarship dollars.

The unmet demand. All told, 5,261 eligible students applied for one of these two programs, and the State Board approved scholarships for 3,956 students.

That doesn’t mean all 3,956 students will receive the money, said Bill Laude, the State Board’s principal research analyst. For example, some students received all the scholarship money they’ll need from their college or university. The Opportunity Scholarship is a so-called “last-dollar” program, which means eligible students only receive a state scholarship if they need it to cover their bills.

The Opportunity Scholarship has struggled to keep up with unmet demand, but the gap is narrowing. Earlier this year, in the midst of the 2018-19 school year, State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman pegged the waiting list at more than 3,400 students.

What about demographics? Too early to say. But the State Board should have some statistics soon.

A year ago, Hispanic students made up nearly 21 percent of Opportunity Scholarship recipients, even though Hispanic students accounted for only 16 percent of the state’s high school graduating class. Meanwhile, female students accounted for nearly two-thirds of the state’s scholarship recipients — an ongoing trend that isn’t likely to change much this year, State Board spokesman Mike Keckler said.

Will the money hold up? Probably.

The State Board actually has a little bit more than $21 million to distribute — interest accounts for some of the difference. The board works its way through its list of applicants, starting with students who receive the state’s highest “eligibility score,” until the money runs out.

But the state usually offers more scholarships than the annual budget will cover, in hopes of convincing more students to take the money and enroll. When that happens, the state withdraws money from an interest-bearing account in order to make up the difference.

The State Board expects this year’s budget line item to cover this year’s scholarships, Keckler said.

 

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