BOISE — While the number of high school students who have been getting Opportunity Scholarships has increased, the number of adults benefiting from the program has been lower than policymakers expected when they extended eligibility last year.

The program, which gives scholarships to students going to a college in Idaho who meet both academic and economic criteria, was created in 2015. The number of students getting scholarships has gone from 1,259 in 2015 to more than 4,000 this year, Matt Freeman, executive director of the state Board of Education, told the House Education Committee on Tuesday morning. The program’s budget has grown from $5 million to $13.5 million in that time. Gov. Brad Little is asking for a $7 million boost in funding for 2019-2020, pointing to the 1,780 applicants who qualified last year but couldn’t get scholarships since there wasn’t enough money available.

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Freeman said 15.3 percent of applicants are Hispanic — they make up 15.6 percent of this year’s senior class — and 4.6 percent of applicants belong to non-Hispanic underrepresented groups, while they make up 4.2 percent of 12th-graders.

“I am pleased to report that we are seeing significant increases in applicants from underrepresented students,” he said.

In 2018, lawmakers voted to extend the offerings by making scholarships available to adults who had at least a 2.7 grade point average and had completed at least 24 credits of college before dropping out, in hopes of enticing them back. In fall 2018, 112 adults applied, of whom 42 were eligible and 32 ended up accepting the scholarship, for a total cost of $77,438. For spring 2019, 188 adults applied, of whom 72 were eligible and 39 accepted scholarships for an estimated cost of $50,000. Freeman said he suspected the number of applicants who didn’t qualify was so high since, the scholarship being new, some people heard about it and applied who weren’t familiar with the criteria.

Freeman said the number of adults returning to college has been fewer than he had hoped for. He said the state works with Idaho’s universities to reach out to adults who might be interested in returning to college. The Lumina Foundation also gave a $400,000 grant last year to encourage adults to finish their education, with an emphasis on targeting veterans, Hispanics, Native Americans and people in rural counties such as Lemhi and Custer. Part of this grant is used to raise awareness, but other than that, Freeman said, he doesn’t have any money specifically designated for outreach.

“It’s a difficult population, in part because the economy is so strong,” Freeman said. “It’s tough to bring working adults back into the classroom. ... Enrollment is usually counter-cyclical to the economy.”

Freeman said he hopes more adults apply in 2019-2020.

Extending the scholarships to adults was controversial, passing the House by just five votes last year. Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, who voted against the bill, asked Freeman how the results of the new adult scholarships were being tracked and how you would know whether the program was successful.

Freeman told Ehardt it would depend on how you want to measure it. He said he would do so “qualitatively, in terms of outcomes” such as how long it takes people to graduate and what kind of jobs they end up getting. He said you would need three to five years of data.

“We’re going to have to establish a baseline,” he said.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.

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