Cuts to scholarship not final, legislators say

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

Legislative leaders doubt a Republican-proposed, $2 million cut to the Opportunity Scholarship will survive final budget scrutiny next week.

Dave Knudson, Senate Majority Leader, said Republicans had proposed the cut because they were seeking alternative funding sources for the scholarship, but the money was not there. Now, Knudson, who opposes the cut, said he thinks the Legislature will remove the $2 million reduction from its final budget.

“There’s broad support in the Senate in support of the Opportunity Scholarship,” Knudson, R-Sioux Falls, said. The Opportunity Scholarship was created in 2003 to keep talented high school graduates in South Dakota for college by offering them a $5,000 financial award dispersed throughout their four years. If the $2 million cut passed, next year’s scholarship award would be cut in half for all students.

Freshman, sophomore and junior students would receive $500 and seniors, $1000, said Jack Warner, executive director of the Board of Regents. Warner said he did not think $500 is enough money to motivate students to take rigorous high school classes and then maintain eligibility requirements in college. He said some high school students rearrange their schedules and retake the ACT just to qualify for the award.

“Students work hard on their end to qualify for the scholarship,” he said. “The state needs to maintain its promise.” Apart from Knudson, several other House and Senate leaders also oppose the $2 million cut, including Scott Heidepriem, Senate Minority Leader; Bernie Hunhoff, House Minority Leader; and Larry Tidemann, House Appropriations Chair.

“South Dakota is the only state in the union that does not have a needs-based scholarship program,” Heidepriem said. “To now cut the Opportunity Scholarship program … jeopardizes the education of many worthy South Dakotans.”

Heidepriem, who called the cut a “terrible idea,” expects Senate democrats to be nearly unanimous in their opposition. Hunhoff said House Democrats also strongly oppose the proposal. That is good news for SDSU, which currently has 1355 Opportunity Scholars.

Marysz Rames, vice president for student affairs, said the university wants the scholarship to remain fully funded because it helps SDSU recruit the state’s top students.

“Those students have major offers from surrounding states,” she said. “It’s hard to compete without having the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship as part of the package.”

The first Opportunity Scholarships were given to the high school class of 2004, and ever since the program’s start, the ACT scores of SDSU’s freshman classes have steadily risen.

In 2003, 38 percent of incoming freshmen had an ACT of at least 24 – one current requirement to receive the scholarship. In 2009, the number had risen to 47 percent.

Rames said keeping these quality students in state is important, not only for the universities but for the state’s future.

“When you graduate from a state, you are more inclined to work in that state,” she said.

Ben Young, a freshman pharmacy major and an Opportunity Scholar, said he also wants the scholarship to be kept in its entirety because it helped him decide to stay in-state for college.

“I’ve talked to a couple of friends who said if they took away the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship, they would leave,” he said.

If Young does not get the full award amount next year, he will have to reexamine his financial aid package and apply for more scholarships or loans.

“It would take a lot more time to figure out what I would do,” he said. “Right now everything lines up perfectly.”

Young has e-mailed all legislators on the issue and about two-thirds responded, he said. Tidemann, R-Brookings, said he has received several e-mails primarily from students and parents opposing the cut.

He encourages all students to contact their legislators, not just those on the appropriations committee, because their voice does matter, he said.

“The fact that students are saying that this is needed is important,” he said.