Arkansas Universities’ Free Tuition Program Rollout Delayed Due to FAFSA Redesign

An updated financial aid form that has been delayed is causing a lack of information for students regarding their eligibility for new free tuition programs at Arkansas universities.

In the current semester, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway have all introduced last-dollar scholarships that cover the remaining tuition and fees after federal and state aid has been applied to students’ accounts.

All three institutions require students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which is currently being redesigned and is expected to be available by Dec. 31, as stated by the U.S. Department of Education.

The usual availability of the form in October has Jonathan Coleman, UALR’s director of financial aid and scholarships, concerned about the delay. “At this point we can’t even tell students who’s eligible for it because we don’t know. The feds don’t even know,” said Coleman. “So hopefully we’ll be able to start communicating with students by mid-February, but that’s just kind of a fingers crossed, let’s hope.”

UALR will be introducing the Trojan Guarantee program in the fall of 2024, which will be available to all freshmen who are Pell Grant-eligible and receive the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship.

According to Coleman, students are not required to live or work on campus or complete an additional form. They simply need to apply for admission and the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship and complete the FAFSA form.

Officials anticipate awarding the scholarship to about 200 freshmen in the first year, with the scholarship being renewable for three years. Funding for the initiative comes from a combination of private and institutional funds, including a $25 million gift received by UALR in 2020 from an anonymous donor, $15 million of which was designated for need-based scholarships.

Coleman stated that UALR has prioritized affordability due to the high number of first-generation and low-income students at the institution. He also noted that nationwide, students are increasingly choosing colleges based on affordability rather than academic programs.

A 2023 report by Hanover Research states that 46% of surveyed students expressed a high likelihood of enrolling in an institution, with 34% citing financial barriers as their main concern.

“It’s important to give students the opportunity,” said Coleman. “Whether they come or not, it’s up to them, but it’s important that we message that they can if they want to, even if it’s for a semester… some college is better than no college, especially if we’re going to help you pay for it without student loans.”

UALR senior Joe Santana, a first-generation student, shared his experience of not knowing how to apply for scholarships when he started college. Santana ended up taking out student loans since he didn’t receive financial aid.

“My parents, they’re not wealthy,” Santana said. “They’re immigrants from Mexico and they’ve built everything they have from scratch, so as their first child, they wanted to give opportunities to me and I’m very grateful for them.”

After transferring to UA-Little Rock, Santana was pleasantly surprised to receive a scholarship specifically for transfer students. His younger brother, who enrolled as a freshman at the same time, received the Fifty-Fresh Scholarship, which offers half-off tuition for eligible students. Coleman mentioned that this scholarship can be combined with the Trojan Guarantee.

Based on his experience navigating college and financial aid, Santana feels a sense of duty to assist younger family members who are considering attending UALR. He emphasized the importance of colleges advertising financial aid opportunities, especially to first-generation students.

Arkansas State University is launching a statewide advertising campaign to promote its new last-dollar scholarship, A-State Promise Plus.

In addition to the announcement during a Sept. 27 press conference, the university is utilizing advertising on social media and billboards across Arkansas, including in locations not typically associated with ASU, according to Todd Clark, the Interim Chief Marketing and Communications Officer.

The A-State Promise Plus scholarship is available to students from households with an income of less than $70,000. Additionally, the scholarship includes extra funding for on-campus housing.

First-year students receive a $2,500 housing scholarship, which increases to $4,500 per year for those who continue to live on campus during their sophomore through senior years.

While waiting for the revised FAFSA form, Arkansas State is encouraging students to apply for admission and submit the College Scholarship Service Profile.

“If students are willing to submit the CSS Profile, then we are able to determine their eligibility and can start the groundwork for putting together an award package for them, basically an estimate of what we think the Promise Plus will be for them,” said Clark. “Once we get a completed FAFSA, once it gets released, then we’ll be able to lock in their specific award package.”

The UCA Commitment, available to incoming freshmen at the University of Central Arkansas, is open for those who are Pell-eligible or have a household income of less than $100,000 per year.

Courtney Bryant, associate vice president for enrollment management and UCA commitment director, mentioned that some students are skeptical about the new program as it appears “too good to be true.” The delay in releasing the FAFSA form is making it challenging to address these concerns.

UCA President Houston Davis unveiled the scholarship program and a $10 million gift from the Windgate Foundation in September. Bryant explained that $5 million will contribute to an endowment for UCA Commitment, while the other $5 million will support scholarship operations.

About 40% of incoming freshmen are expected to be eligible for the scholarship, amounting to approximately 750-800 students. Notably, the scholarship includes a service requirement of 10 hours per semester.

Bryant stated that while finances can be a barrier for college students, engagement and a sense of belonging are also challenges. The service requirement aims to invest in students and increase retention rates.

“The overall goal is to get them to that degree, so just the retention component is huge as far as the purpose and drive for what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Source: Arkansas Advocate

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