Silas Walker, Deseret News
A pedestrian walks by the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.

A bill that would open access to higher education for thousands of students is on the floor of the Utah House of Representatives, where it deserves a favorable vote on its way to becoming a law that could have a long-term impact on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

House Bill 260 would create the Access Utah Promise Scholarship Program, offering students unable to afford a college education two years’ worth of tuition and fees at state universities, colleges and technical schools. The bill passed the House Education Committee by a unanimous vote, which we hope bodes well for its chances of final passage and the governor’s signature.

The law includes a $30 million one-time appropriation to start the program, which would eventually replace a current system of merit-based scholarships administered by the State Board of Regents. Those grants tend to favor high-achieving students capable of receiving private scholarships. The Access Utah program would focus on needs-based students who may otherwise be unable to afford entry into higher education.

As a way of addressing the problems of wealth inequality and perpetual impoverishment, the bill is straight on point and an example of forward-thinking legislation that could be a game changer in helping more kids access the ladder of social and economic ascendancy. It appears to enjoy widespread support among lawmakers, including one who worried it doesn’t go far enough by limiting aid to only two years, which could leave some students “hanging” before they graduate — a concern we share.

The growing opportunity gap between wealthier Americans and those in middle- and lower-income classes is quickly becoming a defining political issue of the times. Progressives on the left-leaning side of the aisle have mustered calls for government programs to provide free college education for all — an aspirational but largely impractical goal. HB260, on the other hand, is tailored after successful programs already in place at Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College. In the experience of Weber State, the graduation rate among recipients of the school’s needs-based assistance program is 73 percent, compared to 44 percent who are not part of the program.

HB260, sponsored by Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, would also aid adults returning to college and would facilitate partnerships with private businesses in making financial assistance available. As many leaders of industry have come to argue in recent years, it is in the best interests of leading businesses to help reverse trends that have made it difficult for large classes of society to participate in the nation’s overall economic prosperity.

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In supporting Rep. Owens’ measure, the presidents of Utah’s public colleges and universities and the commissioner of higher education wrote jointly, “Nothing has been proven to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty like a college education.” Indeed, the state’s Department of Workforce Services says 7 percent of Utah children live in state of poverty that has extended beyond a single generation, and that 23 percent are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults. The department’s data show the financial inability to obtain a higher education is a common denominator among those groups.

There are few, if any, objectives more important for policy makers to focus on than trying to break that cycle. HB260 effectively addresses and executes an essential step in reaching that goal.