PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A key panel of state lawmakers had nothing but good comments Tuesday about a proposed $500 increase in the merit-based South Dakota Opportunity scholarship.

The Senate Education Committee put its weight behind the legislation from Senator Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, endorsing it 7-0.

About 3,400 students at public and private colleges and universities in South Dakota currently receive the $6,500 scholarship that’s spread in increments of $1,300 each of the first three years and $2,600 in year four.

Nesiba cited a legislative fiscal analysis that estimated the additional cost to the state general fund at about $400,000 the first year.

“This is a way to keep our kids in our state and remain competitive,” Senate Democrat leader Troy Heinert of Mission said. “$400,000? We throw that over the railing every day.”

Senator Jim Bolin, R-Canton, said the bill needed to go to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations, which sets state government’s budget each year.

“I think this is a very worthwhile bill,” Bolin said. “There is a lot of merit here.”

Said Senator Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford: “I wholeheartedly endorse the concept.”

Nesiba, an economics professor at Augustana University, said the first Opportunity scholarships were issued in 2004 and the amount last increased in 2015.

He noted that South Dakota university and college graduates ranked No. 1 in the nation — meaning worst — in their per-student average loan debt. “That’s why I’m proposing this increase,” he said.

Among witnesses testifying in favor of the increase were Tim Dougherty, representing the South Dakota Association of Independent Colleges; Grace Beck, on behalf of the state Board of Technical Colleges; and Nathan Lukkes, legal counsel for the state Board of Regents.

“This is just kind of a gap-filler,” Lukkes said.

The only opponent was an analyst from the governor’s budget office. Hallie Getz said tuition has gone up 1.7% on average in recent years.

Said Nesiba, “I really see this as our main merit-based scholarship.”