Students taking classes through the state’s institutions of higher education could find it easier to take gap years if House Bill 31 passes during the upcoming budget session of the Wyoming Legislature.
Proposed by Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, HB31 allows students to wait longer before applying for the Hathaway Scholarship, which is used by many Wyoming students to lower the amount of tuition they pay and reduce the amount of loans they borrow.
“The thinking behind the bill is to provide a tad bit more time for our young people to be able to have the option to come back and apply … for the Hathaway,” Henderson said. “It gives our young people a bit more time to find their path in life, so when they do come back, they know a bit more about what they really want to study.”
Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship program provides assistance to graduates of state high schools attending state colleges, discounting already low in-state tuition for up to eight semesters.
During the 2016-2017 academic year, 2,385 students initiate a Hathaway Scholarship for the first time at the University of Wyoming and the state’s seven regional community colleges, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. More than half of these recipients received either the ‘Performance’ or ‘Honors’ Hathaways, which afford $1,260 and $1,680 a semester, respectively.
The original legislation providing for the state scholarships allows students to apply for the Hathaway up to two years following graduation from high school. This provision is open to all, but benefits specifically military veteran students returning for school after service and young people serving religious missions before starting or completing their degree.
Henderson’s bill would extend this application deadline to four years following graduation.
“The idea came from a constituent, whose daughter was attending a university out of state,” Henderson said. “She was at about the two-year point in getting her education and was really wanting to come back home, but the limitation was two years. The circumstances didn’t allow the opportunity for her to go ahead and apply, return home and get a degree here at UW.”
Worland High School graduate Jerica Hunter attended Sheridan College her freshman year, with help from Hathaway. She decided to join the U.S. Army following that first year of higher education and served two deployments with the 101st Airborne Division.
Returning after four years — and having completed an associate’s degree during her time in the military — Hunter enrolled at the University of Wyoming. Her four years of service encompassed the allotted two-year gap, as well as two years of unused eligibility. She was able to use the Hathaway for one more year, but continued at UW to complete her degree.
“I was close enough that it didn’t totally destroy my path or anything,” she said. “But I think there’s a lot of high schoolers that go straight into the military, coming back assuming that they’re going to have (the scholarship) and they don’t — I think that’s a struggle for a lot of them.”
Hunter said she would support extending the application deadline.
“I think extending that Hathaway, especially for veterans, is just another step toward encouraging veterans to come to UW,” she said. “Being a Wyoming veteran, there’s a lot of pride that comes with not only being a veteran but coming back to your home state.”
Chelsey Sleight, a UW student majoring in economics and finance, also took a leave of absence from higher education following her freshman year, though for different reasons.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Sleight served an 18-month mission between Argentina and Paraguay after turning 19 — the age at which women in the church are allowed and encouraged to take part in missions.
She said the two-year application deadline is appreciated by young members of her church, who can take 18 months or 2 years to complete a mission, knowing they will still be eligible for the Hathaway upon their return to college.
“I know that LDS people don’t make up a huge proportion of students here at the university, but I think without that two-year gap, you would lose a lot of, I guess I would say, LDS talent to places in neighboring states and most likely Utah,” Sleight said. “But instead, we’re able to stay here in the state that we love and to study where we want to study.”
She added the extension would likely be a bigger benefit to veteran students, as LDS missions do not extend past two years and thus easily fit within the current allotment.
“While I would like to believe they would make the sacrifice anyway, whether or not that two-year gap existed, I know we’re all really grateful that the university will allow us to exercise our faith and for veterans to exercise pride for their country and for both of us, the desire to serve,” Sleight said.
Henderson introduced the same bill — changing only the word “two” to “four” in the original legislation — during the 2017 general session, where it was approved by the education committee, but died in the general file, never being brought before the full House.
During the 2018 budget session, which starts Feb. 12, the bill must receive a two-thirds vote from the House to be introduced, but both House Education Committee Chairman Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, have signed on as co-sponsors.
“I don’t think it’s based on the sponsorship as much as it’s based on merits of the bill — the content of the bill and purpose of the bill,” Henderson said. “I think we should do everything we can to help our young folks get the education that they need.”