Students Fail to Grab Oklahoma Scholarship Offers

Oklahoma's public schools offer scholarships that allow more than half of in-state students to attend college tuition-free. Yet fewer than half of those eligible are using the scholarships to attend college.

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It is commencement time at colleges and universities, and those graduations carry an extra significance in the state of Oklahoma. That state has one of the nation's lowest percentages of college graduates. Several years ago Oklahoma began working hard to change that, creating a state-funded scholarship program and other incentives for young people to get college degrees. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, the investment appears to be paying off.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Coupled with one of the nation's lowest graduation rates, Oklahoma also has one of the nation's lowest per capita incomes, and that's not a coincidence. Paul Risser is the head of the State Regents for Higher Education, which oversees more than 40 public colleges and universities in Oklahoma. He says in the 1990s, Oklahoma realized that its future prosperity hinged on it doing more to promote college degrees.

Mr. PAUL RISSER (State Regents for Higher Education): Seventy-five percent of the new jobs today require at least some college, and many of them require a bachelor's. And so the challenge was to find ways that we could encourage more Oklahomans to acquire a bachelor's degree.

ALLEN: Oklahoma announced a plan called Brain Gain 2010 with an ambitious goal: raising by 8 percentage points the number of the state's adults with college degrees. At that time Oklahoma ranked 47th in the nation; just one adult in five had graduated from college. The state began pressuring colleges and universities to improve their graduation rates, especially to help college freshmen survive their first year and to stay in school until graduation. But state educators realized that if they wanted to increase the number of Oklahomans with college degrees, they had to start early in the seventh, eighth and ninth grade.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: ...or call this number. The earlier you plan, the better.

Unidentified Girl #1: I have a plan for college. Do you?

Unidentified Boy #1: Do you?

Unidentified Girl #2: Do you?

Unidentified Boy #2: Do you?

ALLEN: In radio and television ads, billboards and other outreach efforts, Oklahoma is working to reach the state's teen-agers and their parents with this message: `Your future depends on a college degree, and if you go, we'll help pay for it.'

BRANDON BROOKS(ph) (Durant High School Student): Oh, and there we go. This is a prep ACT.

ALLEN: In a computer lab at Durant High School in southeastern Oklahoma, freshman Brandon Brooks is working at a computer. He's using a tutorial program that will help prepare him for the ACTs, the college entrance exam he plans on taking next year. Brooks is part of GEAR UP, a federally funded program that's a big part of the push here in Oklahoma to encourage high schoolers to go on to college. He's in the tutorial's math section working on a problem in the chapter titled "Simple Interest."

BROOKS: Like, you take calculator--see if I can do this. You'd multiply $12,000 times .08, and you'd get 960.

ALLEN: Brooks says he's definitely planning on going to college like his sister, now a freshman at Oklahoma Baptist University. He's already enrolled in the state's Oklahoma Promise scholarship program. If he keeps his grade point average at C+ or higher, he'll attend a state college or university tuition free. It's a great deal, one that's available to any Oklahoma student whose parents earn $50,000 a year or less. Sixty percent of the state's students qualify, but here at Durant High School, only about half of those who qualified in last year's graduating class actually used the scholarships and went on to college. Beth Bailey Jones is in charge of the GEAR UP program in southeast Oklahoma, the part of the state wedged between Arkansas and Texas. Driving south on Highway 69, she points out the dilapidated housing.

Ms. BETH BAILEY JONES (GEAR UP): Because of the high poverty level, we have the reputation of being Little Dixie. And, in fact, we have all the similarities, the stereotypes, everything that's associated with that.

ALLEN: Jones says one of her challenges is that so many of the students she reaches out to would be the first in their family to attend college. She spends a lot of time here talking up the state's scholarship program and the difference a college education can make in a young person's life. What she's really asking parents, she says, is for them to envision a career and a life for their child that's different from the one that they know.

Ms. JONES: You know, they look at it from the standpoint of, `Here's my baby, and now you want to take my baby away from me. Well, I do this and I have a good living.' It's just you're changing more than data. You're changing society as a whole.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Unidentified Woman: Here's Beth.

Ms. JONES: Hello.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

ALLEN: Jones stops in at Calera High School, a small school in a rural area where few parents went to college. But here the GEAR UP program and the promise of scholarships has taken hold. Last summer GEAR UP freshmen and sophomores visited Washington, DC, the first time many had ever been on a plane or, for that matter, a city bus. A better gauge of GEAR UP's success is that since it began here, the number of students taking the ACT college exam at Calera High School has doubled, and every student who's eligible is enrolled in the Oklahoma Promise scholarship program. Sophomore Erica Campbell has already taken the ACT and says she's sure GEAR UP helped her score.

ERICA CAMPBELL (Calera High School Sophomore): It's helped me get ready for college. It's taught me of what I need to do to get ready, and it's made me more confident in just about anything.

ALLEN: Although progress is slow, there are signs that Oklahoma's Brain Gain initiative is bearing fruit. In six years the state has raised its graduation rate by nearly 2 percentage points and, among the states, has moved from 47th to 42nd place.

But there's another problem: the brain drain. One out of four of those with college degrees now leaves Oklahoma within five years after graduation. More than half of those with engineering and technical degrees leave the state. Oklahoma educators hope Brain Gain 2010 can change that as well. They believe that a better-educated work force will attract employers and jobs, giving Oklahoma's college graduates a reason to stay in the state where they were raised and educated. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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