BOISE - Thousands of Idaho college students who were scheduled to receive $500 “Promise Scholarships” this year will get just $400 instead, under a plan that’s up for final approval Thursday by the state Board of Education.
The scholarship, started by lawmakers in 2001, is for any Idaho high school graduate with at least a B average, who attends an Idaho college, public or private; it helps those students with expenses for their first two years of college, as long as they maintain their grades.
At North Idaho College alone, nearly 400 students are on the Promise Scholarship. “The state’s in a tough position, we understand that,” said John Martin, vice president for community relations at NIC. “But we’re a growth industry … Anything that impacts the ability of the students to access our education and training we’re obviously very concerned about.”
The same tough times that have driven the state to slash its budget have prompted huge increases in college enrollments throughout the state - and the combination of the two left the scholarship program without enough money to keep its full promise this spring.
“The reality is we’ve just got far more people eligible that have applied, and we’ve got fewer dollars to work with,” said Mark Browning, spokesman for the state Board of Education. “It is hard. We’re hearing all kinds of stories and each one of them is legitimate, they’re valid. They have great concerns.”
Close to 9,000 students across the state received fall-semester payments of $250 this fall, but that was before Gov. Butch Otter imposed mid-year budget cuts last month, including a 6 percent cut from college and university budgets.
The budget holdback sliced $235,524 from the $3.9 million Promise Scholarship appropriation.
Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, who worked with the late Sen. Bob Lee, R-Rexburg, to establish the scholarship program in 2000, said, “I think it’s really a shame. … While the scholarship itself is relatively small in relation to other college scholarships, it has been a very important part to help students through the first couple years.”
Trail and Lee set up the scholarship program in part because Idaho, despite a high rate of high school graduation, has seen low numbers of its students continue their education in college.
At NIC, where a semester’s tuition and fees for a full-time student run $1,257, the scholarship is significant, Martin said, and even $100 can make a big difference for some students. “That’s a textbook, perhaps,” he said. “When the students are pinching every penny to try and stretch it out there, they have to make hard choices.”
Enrollment has soared 16.6 percent at NIC this fall, with almost 800 more degree-seeking students than last fall. The University of Idaho saw a second straight year of enrollment increases after a five-year slump; and Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston had a record-high enrollment of 4,200 students this fall, the first time the school has exceeded 4,000.
Trail said Idaho lawmakers are “going to be faced with some real challenges this next session, and it seems to me that higher ed is taking more of the brunt of it. We’re actually cutting muscle out of some of our best programs.”
State law allows the Promise Scholarship, technically the “Promise Part B” scholarship (Part A is a four-year, $3,000-per-year scholarship for a couple dozen top students), to total up to $600 per year, a mark it hit last year and the year before. It was reduced to $400 one other year, in 2003; usually, it’s been $500 to $565.