Proposed 'Promise Scholarship' would make community college free. Does Nevada need it?

Nevada has a merit-based scholarship program for its high-achieving students and a needs-based one for community college students taking a relatively hefty course load.

But lawmakers say those programs don’t help many of the students at the state’s two-year colleges — those with average academic performance in high school, who need to take remedial courses in college, or who those taking fewer than 15 credits at a community college because of work or family obligations.

“These are excellent tools, but they are not enough,” Democratic Sen. Mo Denis said this week about the Millennium and Silver State programs.

That’s why Denis and other Democratic lawmakers are proposing the Nevada Promise Scholarship — a “last-dollar” program that would pay whatever part of community college tuition isn’t covered by federal aid or other Nevada awards such as the Millennium Scholarship and the Silver State Opportunity Grant. Essentially, it would make community college free.

“It will change the culture of who goes to college,” Denis said.Students who before would not have gone to college because of cost will now have the vision that college is possible and that we will help them succeed.”

The program described in SB391 is modeled after Tennessee Promise, a scholarship credited with helping that state increase its college-going rate by 13 percent. In 2015, President Barack Obama proposed spending $60 billion in federal funds over 10 years to spread the concept across the country, although that hasn’t come to pass.

There would be no minimum GPA or SAT score to receive the Nevada Promise Scholarship, and students of every family income level could receive it. Unlike Nevada’s other scholarships, it would cover the remedial coursework that about two-thirds of high school students heading to community college need.

When the program first started in Tennessee, officials found that its target students — many of whom were the first in their families to attend college — struggled to keep up with their work and complete a degree. That changed when administrators implemented a mentorship component to keep tabs on participants and ensure they stayed on track — a concept included in the Nevada Promise proposal.

Supporters say a Promise Scholarship could address a number of persistent problems in Nevada:

  • The Promise Scholarship’s requirement to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) would drive a wider group of students to submit the form. An analysis from NerdWallet estimates that Nevada leaves $19 million in federal Pell grants on the table each year because students fail to claim the money. 
  • It could drive more students to attend college. Nevada ranks 44th in the nation for the rate of students enrolling in college immediately after graduating high school. 
  • Its mentorship program could fill a gap in academic advisers. The College of Southern Nevada currently has one staff counselor per 1,300 students, while the proposal calls for no more than 10 students per volunteer mentor. 
  • Its requirement that students complete eight hours of community service each semester to keep the scholarship could boost civic engagement. Since inception, participants in Tennessee Promise have logged 1 million hours of community service, according to bill proponents.

With 12 credits of tuition at the College of Southern Nevada running just over $1,200 a semester, Denis thinks he can fund the program with $5 million in the upcoming biennium. The money isn’t in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s budget, so lawmakers would have to negotiate for a funding source the governor would not veto.

Sandoval's office issued a statement saying the program raised concerns.

"In his executive budget, the Governor has proposed additional funding for the Silver State Opportunity Grant program and the Millennium Scholarship, and directed  more than $100 million in new funds to higher education," the statement said. "Any proposed expenses exceeding that which has been included in the budget present concerns. The $5 million necessary to start this program is not accounted for in the executive budget and would likely have to be taken from another program or require a new revenue source. He’ll review the final policy should it arrive on his desk for signature but the Governor does not have an interest in pitting K-12 students against higher education students."

Here’s how the Promise proposal stacks up against what Nevada already has in place:

Feature Photo: Students walk between classes at the College of Southern Nevada Charleston Campus on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.