On Friday, Bill Halter’s campaign staff released what he is calling the Arkansas Promise, a plan to pay for the college tuition for every Arkansas student. Modeled after the El Dorado Promise and the Arkadelphia Promise, Halter’s proposal seeks to ensure that every student graduating from an Arkansas high school can attend college at a state-supported college or university free of charge, with the highest possible scholarship amount being set at the tuition level for the highest-cost four-year public university in Arkansas. For anyone not familiar with how this works, the Arkansas Promise would fill in the “gap” between the financial aid that each student receives, either from federal, state, or private sources, and the actual cost of attendance. The Promise would not do away with federal Pell grants, the lottery scholarship, or any other state scholarship programs. Rather, it would pay the difference between what a student receives from those sources and what it costs for the student to attend the state-supported college or university of his or her choice. According to Halter’s proposal, student eligibility would mirror that of the lottery scholarship, which can be found in more detail here.
Halter claims that this proposal will cost the state approximately $50 – $75M per year in state general revenue once fully implemented, and that this can be paid for through normal revenue growth without any increases in taxes. Not many specifics are given, but there’s plenty of time to ask the hard questions during the upcoming gubernatorial race. It’s a great idea, and I agree that increasing the number of adults in Arkansas with a college education should be our top priority, but you need more than just a great idea to make it a good policy decision. Most importantly, you need the hard numbers: How much does it cost (show your math)? Where does the money come from? What do you cut if revenue growth doesn’t meet the cost? You can’t make this promise to students and then cut back when revenue growth doesn’t deliver. There are a lot of students graduating from high school this year that thought they would be getting a $5,000 lottery scholarship, but instead they’re getting $2,000, because the lottery revenue didn’t come through as predicted.