UPDATE Halter proposes ‘Arkansas Promise’ scholarship program


LITTLE ROCK — Former Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter said Monday a key policy proposal of his 2014 campaign for governor will be a college scholarship program with a more ambitious goal than the state lottery program he successfully pushed for in 2008.

The proposal, The Arkansas Promise, would provide every student who graduates from an Arkansas high school with a grade point average of 2.5 or higher a full-tuition scholarship to attend a public or private college or university in the state.

The amount of the scholarship could not exceed the tuition rate at the most expensive public university in the state, currently the University of Arkansas. Tuition and fees to attend UA now cost an average of $7,553.40 per year for Arkansas residents, according to the UA treasurer’s office.

Halter, currently the only declared Democratic candidate for governor, said he patterned the idea after The El Dorado Promise, a scholarship program created by Murphy Oil Corp. for El Dorado students, and The Arkadelphia Promise, a scholarship program created by The Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp for students in that city.

“The El Dorado Promise and The Arkadelphia Promise have both been tremendous successes,” Halter said in an interview. “In El Dorado the college-going rate has now exceeded 90 percent. Test scores are up, dropout rates are down and people have moved to El Dorado, Arkansas, from 31 different states in the country to access the El Dorado Promise. These promise programs work.”

Halter said The Arkansas Promise would be funded with lottery revenue, the $20 million a year that the state now contributes to the Academic Challenge Scholarship program from general revenue, federal grants such as the Pell Grant, philanthropic contributions which the state would encourage, and additional general revenue funding which he estimated at $50 million to $75 million a year.

He said he was confident the state could afford the extra cost.

“In the context of a general revenue budget of $5 billion, you’re talking about 1 percent to 1.5 percent of general revenues. And, I think importantly, general revenue growth is typically between 2 to 5 percent or more per year.” he said.

The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, the major policy achievement of Halter’s term as lieutenant governor, currently funds the Academic Challenge Scholarship, which offers college scholarships to students who graduate from an Arkansas high school with at least a 2.5 GPA or score at least a 19 on the ACT.

The lottery scholarships originally were $5,000 per year to attend a four-year school and $2,500 per year to attend a two-year school, but in 2011 the Legislature reduced the amounts for new students by 10 percent because of concern that the demand would exceed available funds.

During the current legislative session, lawmakers set the scholarships at $2,000 for freshmen, $3,000 for sophomores, $4,000 for juniors and $5,000 for seniors, which amounts to a further reduction.

Halter said he disagrees with the Legislature’s approach.

“We’ve got more students earning the scholarships than were originally projected. The response to that should not be to cut back the program. The response to that is, you’ve got a high-return investment that’s working, therefore you put more wood behind it,” he said.

Halter noted that Arkansas ranks 49th in the nation in the percentage of adults with college degrees, ahead of only West Virginia. Increasing access to higher education is critical if the state is to compete for jobs, he said.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, who first proposed the tiered scholarships plan, said he would like more information on where the money would come from under Halter’s proposal, and Key said he’s not sure the state should take on the responsibility of paying college tuition for all eligible students.

“A lot of us worked our way through college. It’s great for private industry like in El Dorado and Arkadelphia to step up, but as I read it, it appears we’re talking about the state paying the whole bill and I’m not sure making that promise is the direction we need to go,” the senator said.

“We do need to get more students in colleges and getting degrees, but to say that we can do that without student and the family saving and paying some of their own way, I’m not sure that’s a promise we can keep long term,” he said.

Halter declined to say how much money his campaign for governor has raised, saying he would report that on April 15.

Asked about recent reports that former Democratic Congressman Mike Ross is reconsidering his decision not to run for governor, Halter said, “I’m focused on policy initiatives and big ideas to advance the state of Arkansas. I’ve never been concerned about who else is running for a particular office.”

Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman have announced their intentions to seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2014. Key also has been mentioned as a possible GOP candidate.