Higher Education

Jay Chilton | April 19, 2017

As OHLAP celebrates 25 years, Smalley, Henke pursue reforms

Jay Chilton

By Jay Chilton, CIJ

OKLAHOMA CITY—The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP), otherwise known as Oklahoma’s Promise, celebrated 25 years with a rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday with Chancellor Glen Johnson and the State Regents for Higher Education touting what they see as the program’s success.

But some say the program, which is intended to provide low-income, college-ready students funding needed for tuition, could benefit from reforms. Sen. Jason Smalley, R-Stroud, and Rep. Katie Henke, R-Tulsa, joined CIJ for an exclusive interview to discuss the program they seek to improve with Senate Bill 529. The bill passed out of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on Tuesday afternoon and could be heard on the House floor as early as Monday, April 24.

CIJ: Rep. Henke, Sen. Smalley, thank you very much for talking with me. I have five questions for you. The OHLAP or Oklahoma’s Promise program was intended … to change the financial trajectory of children so that future generations would not be in the same kind of poverty that they grew up in. The kids (entering the OHLAP program) are supposed to be college ready. Why then does OHLAP or Oklahoma’s Promise pay for remedial or zero-level courses?

Smalley: Actually, in our bill, we recognize that. … Under the bill that we’re running right now, actually would prohibit OHLAP from paying for remedial courses. That’s in the documentation of the bill, that was one big selling advantage, the simple fact that we pay for K through 12 education and we want you to come and be college- and career-ready.

CIJ: There are state colleges in Oklahoma who advertise that they will alter the way that they administer the financial aid so that at the end of the financial aid process, these students, specifically OHLAP students, will have money returned to them and be pocketing cash. In Northeastern State’s example, more than $1,000. Should students of the OHLAP program be pocketing money from Oklahoma taxpayers, or should OHLAP simply be a bridge from a Pell or OTAG grant rather than putting money in the wallets of these students?

Henke: I have to say, I’m unaware of the institutions advertising that sort of situation. The whole point of the scholarship is for families that make less than $50,000. We all know that a college education and a college degree is an expensive process. First, the cost of tuition, and with a lot of our universities there are a lot of other fees, books and fees, and living expenses that go along with those. While I’m unaware of that situation, I would imagine that these students are requiring other forms of financial aid to be able to complete the college process.

CIJ: I appreciate the answer. In response I would say, Northeastern State University, you should look at their website. They advertise (their offer to return cash to the student) prominently.

Smalley: We will.

CIJ: Some kids are not interested in college. … Does OHLAP or Oklahoma’s Promise offer any support or funding to kids who would rather go to a trade school to become a welder, a heavy equipment operator, or a carpenter?

Smalley: Again, this year, in the bill that we’ve drafted, we put in there and worked with CareerTech, and worked with the Higher Regents and the Higher Learning Commission to be able to bridge that gap and offer some scholarships to CareerTech. It’s a small nominal price, in what we call a niche area, of kids that want to take advantage of that.

Henke: This bill will actually expand the number of programs in our trade schools that these students would be eligible to use the funds for.

CIJ: If (the students) are college-ready, and the assumption is that a student who enters college is expected to graduate in four years, why then the five (years of OHLAP eligibility)?

Henke: Well, that is something that higher ed is looking at, as far as a cap on hours. The problem with saying that you need to only graduate in four (years), or five, or a number of (college credit) hours, is that degrees vary. The number of hours in the degrees varies. While an architecture degree may take 150 hours, an early childhood degree may take 120 hours. … Also, there’s not always a section of a course available.

CIJ: Not all courses are offered in all semesters.

Henke: Right.

Smalley: And you don’t want to punish an individual just because the course wasn’t offered that semester whether that’s a fall or whether that’s a spring. Sometimes there are issues in life when an individual has to take time away from that opportunity and then they will return back there, as long as it’s within the five years, they’ll be able to take advantage of that. But let’s not deter individuals from taking harder courses as well as more complicated degrees. Let’s get those individuals who want to take on those challenges the best degrees they can possibly take.

CIJ: Does a student have to start immediately upon graduation of high school? For instance, say a kid wants to go on a two-year mission trip before they start college.

Smalley: We’d have to look into that to see what the delay factor is. Currently, you apply for that in your sophomore year that will carry over. We have instituted, in my opinion, some really thoughtful reforms on the fact, having the second income check, look back on the FAFSA form every single year to make sure those individuals qualify. I think that’s going to be something that you’ll see that individuals can’t game the system anymore, or we’re making it harder. … But we’d have to look into see how long of a time gap for an individual. We want to be sure that we are courteous to those individuals who want to pursue mission trips or maybe some type of calling (after high school).

Jay Chilton

Independent Journalist

Jay Chilton is a multiple-award-winning photojournalist including the Oklahoma Press Association’s Photo of the Year in 2013. His previous service as an intelligence operative for the U.S. Army, retail and commercial sales director, oil-field operator and entrepreneur in three different countries on two continents and across the U.S. lends a wide experience and context helping him produce well-rounded and complete stories. Jay’s passion is telling stories. He strives to place the reader in the seat, at the event, or on the sideline allowing the reader to experience an event through his reporting. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma with a minor in photographic arts. Jay and his wife live in Midwest City with three dogs and innumerable koi enjoying frequent visits from their children.

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