Gehrke: Here’s quite possibly the best bill Utah’s lawmakers will see in 2019. It expands college access and helps the economy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

It’s easy to beat up on the Utah Legislature sometimes and, let’s be honest, it can be kind of fun.

But every now and then there’s an idea that surfaces that makes so much sense and could prove to be so transformational in the lives of average Utahns that it deserves special attention.

One of those bills, HB260, may be the single best piece of legislation in the 2019 session. It would revolutionize the way we view college and vastly improve access and opportunity for thousands of Utah students who might otherwise be left behind.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, seeks to create the Access Utah Promise Scholarship program to fill the gaps where other scholarships and financial aid fall short and guarantee two free years of college to as many as 10,000 Utah students.

Owens, who himself is a first-generation college graduate, put it well: “Education changes lives.”

“It is the great equalizer in our society,” he said. “Someone who has motivation and desire and drive can overcome these barriers of financial need and socioeconomics that they might have zero say in.”

It’s the aspirational vision of the American Dream, but one that is too often out of reach in a time of skyrocketing tuition.

The bill is modeled after a program launched at Weber State University back in 2010 — the unfortunately named “Dream Weber” program, which was obviously someone’s sick attempt to implant Gary Wright’s song “Dream Weaver” in everyone’s heads.

The name aside, new Weber President Brad Mortensen said students who were part of the program have a graduation rate that is nearly 30 percent higher than the average student. Because of the program, the school has awarded 4,000 associates degrees and 3,200 bachelors degrees to students who otherwise might not have been able to go to college.

In 2016, Salt Lake Community College embarked on a similar program, SLCC Promise, and, while it’s in its infancy, SLCC President Deneece Huftalin said it has been particularly effective in attracting those first-generation students.

“It’s hitting a target of students who we know need a college education, but may be opting out because they don’t see a financial path,” she said.

The Access Utah scholarships would primarily replace the existing Regents’ Scholarship program (and a few other smaller programs) that was well-intended but that university officials acknowledge has not worked as anticipated.

The Regents’ Scholarships go to high-achieving students based on test scores and grades. But 91 percent of those students have received other scholarships, so it hasn’t done anything to expand the pool of students able to get a higher education.

Moreover, a student who gets a full-ride scholarship to Utah State University, for example, would be able to keep all of the money awarded under the Regents’ Scholarship, meaning those are dollars not available to help other students meet their college dream.

The Access scholarships, by contrast, will be need-based. Students who are accepted to a state school (sorry, private schools like Brigham Young University and Westminster College would not qualify) would get their federal student aid package and scholarship offers and then could apply for Access Utah funds to make up any additional amount they fall short.

It would benefit as many as three times as many students with the same roughly $20 million spent on the scholarship programs that would be phased out.

(If your student has a Regents’ Scholarship, congratulations and don’t panic; commitments that have been made to students will be honored).

Getting more students some sort of degree doesn’t just help their prospects — it helps the state’s economy.

Business leaders have complained that one of their biggest challenges to expanding in Utah is finding skilled workers. Economists and state leaders have warned that the lack of trained workers — particularly in certain technical fields — could slow economic growth in the coming years.

This is not just a good idea, it’s a great idea, and hopefully the Legislature makes it a priority this session. After it passes, we can go back to ridiculing the annoying things they inflict on the state during the rest of the session.