Legislative bills may alter Opportunity Scholarship

Ellen Nelson

Ellen Nelson

Several bills in the South Dakota Legislature may alter who is eligible for the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship by changing college course load and high school foreign language requirements and by allowing home-schooled students into the program.

Dispersed throughout four years, the Opportunity Scholarship provides $5,000 to South Dakota high school graduates who meet rigorous coursework requirements in high school, receive an ACT score of 24 or higher, attend an eligible in-state higher education institution and maintain grade and course load requirements in college. Presently, SDSU has the highest number of Opportunity Scholarship recipients, providing funds to 3,848 students since South Dakota graduates first received it in 2004.

Several bills in the Legislature may change some of the scholarship’s eligibility criteria, though.

Sen. Pam Merchant of Brookings is sponsoring Senate Bill 145, which would allow students to complete 30 credit hours per academic year to maintain eligibility. Currently, students must take 15 credits per semester, but students have increasingly requested exemptions to this rule from the Board of Regents.

The spring 2008 Term Recipient Report showed a total of 344 exemption requests, with the most common exemption waiver being granted for students that were unable to meet the 15-credit hour per semester requirement. This caused lawmakers and school officials to reexamine the policy.

“Students are paying for (an unnecessary) one-credit class here and there to meet the 30-hour requirement,” said Merchant at a legislative forum earlier this month. “It’s a pretty simple bill, but it allows flexibility.”

Passed by the Senate and recommended for approval by the House Education Committee, SB 145 is the only bill currently supported by the Board of Regents. The Board is not in favor of two other bills – House bills 1160 and 1190 – that also change eligibility requirements.

HB 1190, which passed the House 66-3 and the Senate 31-3, allows technical courses to be taken during high school instead of world language classes.

“We are strongly opposed (to HB 1190),” said Janelle Toman, director of information and institutional research for the Board. “We have no problem with vocational-tech coursework ? but to eliminate foreign language is going in a different direction than what is intended.”

Toman said she believes foreign language courses better prepare students’ minds for rigorous college classes.

“To substitute this (foreign language requirement) is the wrong thing to do,” she said.

Contrary to the Board of Regents, Superintendent for Burke School District, Eric Pearson, had been promoting this change brought by HB 1190, saying that this has potential to benefit students’ personal career goals.

For example, for students interested in engineering or architecture careers, taking a high school computer drafting course makes more sense than making room in their schedules for foreign language courses just to qualify for the opportunity scholarship, Pearson said in an interview with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Meanwhile, HB 1160 originally would have allowed home-schooled students – who do not have an accredited transcript and are currently ineligible for the Opportunity Scholarship – to receive the financial aid with an ACT score of 26. The Board of Regents opposed this change since students who were home-schooled would not have to meet the same rigorous coursework requirements as other students.

“Everybody should be on the same playing field,” said Toman.

John Sandstrom, pharmacy student and former Students’ Association senator, supports opening up the eligibility to home-schooled students. He said the required higher ACT score is proof enough of eligibility for the scholarship.

“Why should we exclude home-schooled kids if they’re qualified for it?” said Sandstrom.

The bill passed the House 42-24, but the Senate Education committee has since amended it. Now, students who do not meet the Regents’ high school course requirements can receive the scholarship if they have an ACT score of 28 or higher or a SAT verbal-mathematics score of 1200 or higher.