For many Americans, a college education is a luxury that feels worlds away. Even if there are multiple income-earners in their home. Even if they have enough cash to cover rent, utility bills and keep food on the table. Even if they don’t qualify for government assistance. Even so, the reality of paying for college can be hard to fathom.
The University of Central Arkansas is testing out a solution it says will largely eliminate financial barrier to a bachelor’s degree for families earning less than $100,000 per year. That could be crucial in a state like Arkansas, which has the 10th highest poverty rate and the third lowest rate of bachelor’s degree attainment in the country.
Given that Arkansas’ median income is $55,432 and 76 percent of households bring in less than $100,000 per year, university president, Houston Davis, believes the program will be able to help many students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay for college cover tuition and fees.
“Instead of a family saying ‘I’ve got a plan for how to pay for that for one year,’ we’ve got a plan for how you can pay for it for four,” Davis said. “We think that is a game changer. That is a change in the conversation around breakfast tables and dinner tables. And we think it’s what Arkansas families need to hear right now.”
The program, called UCA Commitment, will be available to next year’s freshman class. To be eligible, students have to be Arkansas residents whose total family annual income falls below the $100,000 threshold. They also must apply for the merit-based Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship.
Once they have collected federal and state grants, the University of Central Arkansas will cover the rest with scholarships and work study assignments, Davis said.
“Instead of a family saying ‘I’ve got a plan for how to pay for that for one year,’ we’ve got a plan for how you can pay for it for four. We think that is a game changer. That is a change in the conversation around breakfast tables and dinner tables. And we think it’s what Arkansas families need to hear right now.”Houston Davis, president of the University of Central Arkansas
Many states offer pathways to tuition-free community college, but such programs at the baccalaureate level are much less common, and typically provided at elite, deep-pocketed private universities, such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Duke. For instance, Colgate University launched a similar program in 2021, which offered free tuition for students from families making less than $80,000, and replaced federal student loans with institution grants for students from families making less than $175,000.
The University of Central Arkansas is a far less selective institution, accepting 90 percent of all applicants. More than 40 percent of the student body qualifies for federal Pell Grants, meaning they come from a low-income family. As a regional university, many students come directly from the surrounding area, which includes counties with poverty rates above 20 percent.
The hope is that this program will remove the financial barrier for students who need it the most including those who may not see college as an option, said Khadish Franklin, managing director and team lead for the research advisory services division at education consulting firm EAB.
“You really need that for schools across the country, but in a state like Arkansas, and in a region like Central Arkansas, it is absolutely transformative for students,” Franklin said. EAB worked with the university to help develop the program.
Arkansas has the 10th highest poverty rate and the third lowest rate of bachelor’s degree attainment in the country.
For the 2023-2024 school year, tuition and fees for Arkansas residents costs $10,118, according to the University of Central Arkansas website. The scholarship won’t cover other costs such as textbooks, housing, food and transportation, which can add up to thousands as well.
Still, as long as they keep their GPA above a 2.5 and log at least 10 hours of community service per semester, students will be able to keep the scholarship for four consecutive years.
Davis said the university estimates that between 40 to 45 percent of freshmen will be eligible, or about 750 students in the fall of 2024.
The program is years in the making. About five years ago, leaders at the University of Central Arkansas considered the threats facing their school: The region faced a looming demographic cliff of college-aged residents and administrators were uncertain about what kind of state and federal funding they could count on in the coming years.
They began to ask themselves, “What were we going to do to be proactive?” Davis said.
To answer the questions, leaders pored through the budget to make sure that every dollar was going toward meeting the needs of students.
Part of that process was determining whether they were doing the best they could with student financial aid packages, Davis said. They worried about “over-awarding” some students, while other students who needed the money more weren’t getting it. They began drafting budgets to see whether they could make something like the UCA Commitment program work. After moving around some scholarship money and raising more money, administrators think they can swing it.
The new program doesn’t come at great risk to the college, either. Just because students won’t have to pay tuition, doesn’t mean the college isn’t getting paid. The money coming in for each student will be the same, it will just come from scholarships and work study assignments instead of college loans and credit cards.
Davis said the university expects to see a small increase in enrollment, but expects the most significant impact will to be on the number of students who return year after year.
“The real power of UCA Commitment is going to be for those students who are in academic good standing, they’re making progress toward a degree, but money is the reason they stop out,” Davis said.
This story about the free bachelor’s degree was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.