A new bill would let Utah students in need apply for a state scholarship, while reducing awards for merit and to study math and science

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University students stand during their graduation at the Dee Events Center in Ogden on Friday, April 28, 2017.

A bill that would scale back state-funded scholarships for math and engineering — as well as a popular merit-based award — and redistribute the money to support a new one calculated on financial need passed unanimously in committee Tuesday.

“We need to do better here,” said Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, the sponsor of HB260. “Utah ranks near the bottom in needs-based access and financial assistance.”

His proposal would create the Access Utah Promise Scholarship, which would provide students from low-income families — those who make less than $50,000 annually — two years of free tuition at a public Utah college, university or technical school. It would apply particularly to those who don’t get as much federal financial aid as they need to attend school full-time.

It has already passed in the House on a 69-3 vote. And after approval in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, it will now go to the full Senate for final consideration.

While the bill has a $30 million funding request, it would also require cutting down on annual scholarships already paid for by taxpayer money. That includes the Regents’ Scholarship that rewards high-achieving students; the New Century Scholarship that helps pay college tuition for students that graduate from high school with an associate degree; and a handful of scholarships for those pursuing degrees in math, science and engineering.

Owens’ initial proposal had suggested getting rid of the Regents’ Scholarship entirely. But the latest draft that passed Tuesday would instead trim the amount rewarded to students, particularly those who already have other grants and awards. That way, it would collect extra money for the need-based scholarship by not allowing students to get and pocket money beyond their tuition costs.

Currently, as many as 91 percent of the Regents’ Scholarship recipients do that, Owens said, stacking multiple offers. Now, the excess could go to students who otherwise might not be able to afford school.

“We could certainly see many lives touched by this,” the lawmaker added.

He has based his proposal on similar programs already offered at Salt Lake Community College and Weber State University. Sen. Ann Millner, a former president of Weber State, said the financial aid assistance worked well there; people in the program, particularly first-generation students, had higher grades and were more likely to graduate than their peers.

Utah Higher Education Commissioner Dave Buhler also spoke in favor.

“We know there’s a strong correlation with the household income and the families that will send students to college,” he said. “Right now, we are leaving behind way too many people.”

The bill faced a bit of pushback from the public Tuesday for a provision that would limit the state-funded scholarships to only public schools in Utah — effectively cutting out Westminster College and Brigham Young University students from getting them, though they have in the past.

“It’s effectively abandoning individuals that need our help,” said Westminster President Bethami Dobkin. “That’s not the intent. But that’s the impact.”

About a quarter of the students at her college, Dobkin added, are from Utah and are eligible for financial aid. “We need to think about access and success.”

Kate Bradshaw, the chair of Westminster’s Alumni Board, added that 92 percent of those who graduate from the school stay and work in the state. She urged lawmakers to reconsider excluding private colleges, whose students also need financial assistance.

Owens responded before the final vote, saying: “These are state tax dollars. Philosophically, I can’t get to the place where those should go to private institutions.” Committee members nodded their heads in agreement.