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Some state lawmakers call for changes in free tuition proposal

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Some lawmakers in the Oklahoma House are calling for significant changes in a proposal to expand a program that pays college tuition for thousands of students.

The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program allows students with good grades and behavior to get free, in-state tuition if their parents' gross annual income is $50,000 or less. A proposal that has passed the Oklahoma Senate would boost the income limit to $75,000.

Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, said a task force should address changes to the program before the Legislature takes any action. Some changes he would like to consider include an income sliding scale depending on how many children a family has in college and extending grade and behavior requirements into college.

Some lawmakers also would like the program to require recipients to remain in Oklahoma a certain number of years before they leave.

"Right now, the state is picking up the tab, and the student is then picking up and hitting the road. That is not prudent," said Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow. "There comes a time we need to quit playing the taxpayer for a fool."

About 55 percent of high school students now financially qualify for the program. About 75 percent of students would be eligible for the program if the income limit was expanded to $75,000 a year.

Terrill said the program needs to be properly funded before an expansion is considered. He said $4.6 million in supplemental funding was needed for the program this fiscal year.

He has offered a bill that would dip into excess oil and natural gas tax revenue to supplement what the state appropriates. The bill also would expand the program to home school students who meet certain criteria.

About 12,000 students are enrolled in the free tuition program this year, up from about 9,100 last school year.
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