SALT LAKE CITY — Qualifying college students would pay no tuition or fees for two years under HB260, which creates the Access Utah Promise Scholarship program.
On Monday, the House Education Committee unanimously supported the legislation, which would cover costs of tuition and general student fees where federal financial aid falls short for low-income students who take full academic loads.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, would be available to students statewide who attend state colleges and universities as well as state technical colleges.
The scholarship program would be patterned after existing initiatives at Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College, said Owens.
Funding appropriated for state scholarship programs, such as the merit-based Regents' Scholarship, would be phased out and would go toward this initiative, Owens said.
The Regents' Scholarship encourages Utah high school students to prepare for college academically and financially.
On average, Regents' Scholarship recipients have 3.9 GPAs and an average score of 29 on the ACT. They are students who readily qualify for other private scholarships, he said.
"Meantime, we have another group of students who don't have access to higher education," said Owens, a retired high school counselor.
The Access Utah Promise Scholarship would also be available to qualifying adults returning to college and in public-partnerships with industry, Owens said.
All applicants must complete the application for federal financial aid.
Owens read excerpts of a letter from the state's college and university presidents and Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education urging lawmakers' support of HB260.
The letter said, in part, "Nothing has been proven to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty like a college education. Yet too often, financial barriers get in the way for the very students who would benefit from a college education the most. Utah consistently ranks near the bottom of the nation for state need-based aid. It's time to expand the programs already proven to work to all Utahns."
The letter notes the success of Weber State's Dream Weber initiative, which pays the remaining college costs for qualifying students when federal grants fall short.
"Dream Weber students graduate college at significantly higher rates than non-Dream Weber students at Weber State University — 73 percent to 44 percent, respectively," the letter states.
The program started in 2010 and provides free tuition and general student fees to students whose annual household incomes are $40,000 or less. Dream Weber is supported by federal and state financial aid and private giving.
SLCC's Promise program requires students to take a full class load and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. Qualifying students must also meet with an adviser to develop a two-year degree plan.
SLCC Promise encourages students to take full class loads so they are more likely to complete their degrees, complete them sooner and at less expense.
SLCC President Deneece Huftalin said the program "changes behavior," meaning students are motivated to apply for federal financial because they know the college will "fill in the gaps of tuition and fees not covered by Pell eligibility."
She added, "For mom and dad to see that financial path makes all the difference in terms of access."
Although the House Education Committee voted unanimously to support the bill, some member expressed concern about the scholarships only being offered for two years.
Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said after two years, "it leaves people hanging."
Higher Education Commissioner David L. Buhler said it will take time to devote full resources to the Access Utah Promise Scholarship program because the state will need to phase out the Regents' Scholarship, which has five years of eligibility.
"You can see there's quite a long tail on this before it would eventually phase out," Buhler said.
Others like Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, spoke in support.
Poulson said her father never made more than $10,000 a year.
"A scholarship to BYU was one of the greatest gifts of my life," she said, her voice breaking with emotion. "I really love the intent of this bill."
HB260 moves to the House for its consideration.