Idaho State Board of Education

BOISE - More than 6,000 college students will get a share of Idaho’s Opportunity Scholarship money this fall, up nearly 50 percent from a year ago.

The state is putting a record sum of money into the scholarship program, and the bigger budget is making a difference. The 2019 Legislature put $20.5 million into the scholarship program, an increase of $7 million. The state is cutting into its scholarship waiting list — but some qualified students still are missing out.

The Opportunity Scholarship provides up to $3,500 a year for eligible students attending Idaho colleges. It’s one of several multimillion-dollar programs the state is using to try to help high school graduates continue their education. 

The State Board of Education is still collecting this year’s numbers, and the figures are fluid, but based on numbers through early October here is what we do know. 

In total, 6,045 students will receive scholarships. That number includes 3,500 new scholarships for first-year students. The remaining scholarships will go to returning students.

A year ago, the state awarded 4,083 scholarships, including 1,930 to new students.

The state also has "adult learner" scholarships aimed at older dropout students who are hoping to return to college. This fall Idaho awarded 80 adult learner scholarships, up from 27 scholarships the first year.

All told, 5,261 eligible students applied for one of these two programs, and the State Board approved scholarships for 3,956 students.

That doesn’t necessarily mean all 3,956 students will receive the money, said Bill Laude, the State Board’s principal research analyst. For example, some students received all the scholarship money they’ll need from their college or university. The Opportunity Scholarship is a so-called “last-dollar” program, which means eligible students only receive a state scholarship if they need it to cover their bills.

Earlier this year, in the midst of the 2018-19 school year, State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman pegged the waiting list at more than 3,400 students.

So will the money hold up? 

The State Board actually has a little bit more than $21 million to distribute — interest accounts for some of the difference. The board works its way through its list of applicants, starting with students who receive the state’s highest “eligibility score,” until the money runs out.

But the state usually offers more scholarships than the annual budget will cover, in hopes of convincing more students to take the money and enroll. When that happens, the state withdraws money from an interest-bearing account in order to make up the difference.

The State Board expects this year’s budget line item to cover this year’s scholarships, Keckler said.