A state lawmaker said Friday he wants to provide free tuition to students at Oklahoma’s community colleges and career techs to help increase the number of college graduates in Oklahoma.
The proposal by Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, was immediately endorsed by the heads of several two-year colleges who said it would increase the earning potential of Oklahomans and boost the state’s economy.
“If you look at the economic impact it will bring to our state, it is tremendous,” said President Donnie Nero of Connors State College in Warner.
Workers with bachelor’s degrees typically earn about $50,000 a year more than twice as much as those with high school diplomas and about $15,000 more than workers with associate degrees, said President Bob Klabenes of Oklahoma State University at Okmulgee.
“It’s the right piece of legislation at the right time,” Klabenes said.
Scholarship and incentive programs that encourage high school graduates to get a higher education have helped increase the number of college graduates in the state, Corn said.
According to the Regents for Higher Education, the percentage of Oklahomans with bachelor’s degrees increased from 20.2 to 22.2 percent between 2000 and 2004.
But the state still lags behind most other states in the number of college graduates, ranking 42nd in the nation. Klabenes said the national average for college graduates is about 27 percent.
Under Corn’s proposal, any Oklahoma high school graduate would be eligible to attend a community college or career tech school for free, regardless of their parents’ income.
The program would not have the same high school curriculum and grade point average requirements as Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program scholarships for four-year schools.
“I believe if students have the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree, they’ll be much more likely to continue their education and earn a bachelor’s degree as well,” Corn said.
He said the plan would “kick open the doors to higher education.”
“This program offers hope,” the senator said. “I think it’s a tremendous commitment we could make. We ought to have more college graduates.”
The proposal is similar to programs already offered by Oklahoma City Community College and Tulsa Community College to students in their areas. Oklahoma has 12 two-year colleges and 29 career tech districts with 56 separate campuses.
Corn said his program would cost about $20 million a year.
“But the dividends Oklahoma will reap in terms of increased earning potential for our state will far exceed the cost,” Corn said.
The legislation will be considered by the 2008 Legislature, which convenes in February.
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