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Report Seeks to Explain How Oklahoma's Promise Survived the Great Recession


Oklahoma’s Promise is one of six state "free college" programs that saw stronger support during the Great Recession.

A report from progressive think tank The Century Foundation found its funding went up 46 percent during the downturn, second only to Mississippi’s program. Foundation senior fellow Jen Mishory said lawmakers took measures to preserve Oklahoma’s Promise after struggling to meet its obligations in 2006.

"In Oklahoma, there’s a mechanism where this program is funded really before the state legislature comes into session. The pot needed to cover that guarantee is already sort of ensured in the budget," Mishory said.

Mishory said lawmakers who see the scholarship programs as a contract are motivated to support them, noting the six states she studied all increased their funding during the downturn, even as many cut other higher ed spending.

Oklahoma’s Promise also built a broad base of public support. With an income cap near the state median income, Mishory says 10 percent of students qualify.

"Some other states have free college programs where they’re reaching 3 or 4 percent of students because of a lot of the requirements they add," Mishory said.

Besides a more generous income cap, Oklahoma's Promise applies to two- and four-year schools, and does not consider test scores or whether a student is enrolled full or part time.

"Those are all important eligibility requirements and questions to be asking as states are pursuing this model and lessons that other states can learn from Oklahoma, given their experience with Oklahoma’s Promise over time," Mishory said.

Nineteen states have some type of scholarship structured as a promise program.