Bill Halter Proposes Expanded Arkansas Scholarship Program

LITTLE ROCK - Arkansas high school graduates who maintain a 2.5 GPA would be able to attend most of the state's colleges and universities tuition-free under an expanded scholarship program proposed Monday by Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Bill Halter.

Halter, a former lieutenant governor who championed the lottery to fund college scholarships in 2008, rolled out the scholarship program as his first major policy proposal since announcing in January that he was seeking the state's top office.

"What we want to do as a state is to say clearly and early to parents and students if you work hard and play by the rules and act responsibly, you've got this opportunity to have a college education in front of you," Halter said.

Halter's program, called "Arkansas Promise," is aimed at increasing access to higher education in a state that has traditionally ranked near the bottom when it comes to college graduates.

The program would expand the scholarships currently funded by the state's lottery revenues. Halter said the program would cost the state an additional $50 million to $75 million a year. Halter said the program could be funded by normal revenue growth and wouldn't require tax increases. Additional money would come from lottery revenues, federal aid programs such as Pell Grants and private donations, Halter said.

The scholarships would pay up to the full cost of tuition of the most expensive four-year public university in the state and could be used at private colleges and universities.

Halter did not say how many additional students would receive college scholarships under his program, or what the total cost would be after additional sources chip in. Nearly 33,000 students currently receive lottery-funded scholarships to go to school in Arkansas.

Halter stopped short of saying whether the program would close the door on any additional tax cuts or would require keeping spending flat in other parts of the state's $4.9 billion budget.

"Budgets are always about prioritization," Halter said. "What we are saying with this proposal is that helping Arkansas families and students achieve higher education we are making a very high priority for the state of Arkansas because it is such a high return investment for the students, it is such a high return investment for the families, for Arkansas communities and the entire state."

Halter announced the program weeks after Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe signed changes to the lottery scholarship program into law. Halter opposed the changes, which created tiered scholarships that start at $2,000 for freshmen at four-year colleges. The award would then increase by $1,000 each year, maxing out at $5,000 for seniors. Students who are enrolled full-time at two-year colleges would be eligible for a $2,000 scholarship each year.

The changes go into effect at the start of the 2013-14 school year and only affect new students.

The scholarship program currently pays $4,500 per year for university students and $2,250 for community college students.

Next year's Democratic race for governor is still unsettled. Halter joined the race the same day Attorney General Dustin McDaniel dropped out over questions about an extramarital relationship. Former Congressman Mike Ross, who last year passed on the governor's race, said Saturday he's reconsidering that decision because of McDaniel's exit.

State Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis and Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter are also considering running for the Democratic nomination. Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman are seeking the GOP nomination.

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