Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said his Arkansas Future Grant program is as much about giving students confidence to go to college as it is about giving them monetary support to do so.
In December, Hutchinson announced that the grant program would be part of his plan to revamp higher education funding and achievement in Arkansas. ArFuture, as the governor called it, would pay for tuition and fees for any student in a high-demand field of study at a state community or technical college.
Hutchinson said the $8.2 million price tag would be covered by the cancellation of two previously funded grant programs that proved ineffective. If the grant is approved by the Legislature this session, Hutchinson said the program will go into effect for the 2017-18 school year.
“Part of the challenge for young people is if they have not had a family member who has gone to college before, they don’t think they can do it; they don’t think they can afford it; they don’t have any confidence in it,” Hutchinson said. “They know there are some grants out there, but they’ve never been able to put them together; they don’t have the assurance they’re going to be able to do it.
“This gives them the confidence level that they can go to a two-year college program that will be fully paid in terms of tuition and fees, and they can actually get a certificate or an associate degree without going into debt. That’s the idea of the program, and we think it has great promise.”
The program will be open to any state resident with a high school degree or GED who has applied for any available federal aid such as a Pell Grant. The ArFuture Grant can be combined with other state aid, including lottery scholarships; it becomes a loan that has to be repaid if the recipient does not work in Arkansas for three years after graduation.
Other key aspects of the grant that the governor and education officials believe will increase its effectiveness are the requirement for the students to meet monthly with a community mentor and to perform 15 hours of community service every semester.
When Hutchinson announced the proposal, he said the grant was aimed at students in high-demand fields of study such as computer science and welding. There are, of course, many different high-demand fields in Arkansas, and those change depending on where in Arkansas a student is located.
Maria Markham, the director of the state’s Department of Higher Education, said the grant has flexibility so it can respond to different demands in different regions of the state. Markham said the state would use research from the Department of Workforce Services as a “jumping-off” point for discerning the high-demand fields, as well as requests from individual community and technical colleges about what programs should be included.
“We’re not trying to socially engineer kids to only go into certain fields,” Markham said. “If you look at the things that are in a STEM or high-demand field, it’s pretty all-encompassing. It does direct students toward things that they can be gainfully employed at the other end.
“We can all agree that students should have the option to study whatever they want and dream to be whatever they want; I think we have an ethical responsibility as educators to let students know what their income potential is going to be when they get to the other end.”
Mike Harvey, interim CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, met with the ADHE on Tuesday to discuss the grant proposal. He said that while the final grant proposal hasn’t been finalized, he was optimistic ArFuture could help narrow the gap between what community businesses need and what community colleges provide.
“We can get a jump on filling the pipeline,” Harvey said. “I’m bullish, but this isn’t going to happen overnight. The only thing holding us back is sheer numbers. There are so many jobs every year, and we can’t fill the pipeline.”
Hutchinson said forestry-related programs may be in high demand in south Arkansas while steel manufacturing is more needed in eastern Arkansas. That’s where the program’s fluidity allows it to adjust.
“We need them in the technical fields of robotics, in programs in manufacturing, in welding; it’s also the STEM fields,” Hutchinson said. “There has been some criticism that this doesn’t apply to history majors. I have great appreciation of history, but whenever you have limited resources and you want to be able to give this promise and assurance to young people, we need to make sure it’s in a field that leads to a job. That should be determined by the regions of the state.”
Easing the Burden
The grant program, if approved, would replace the GO! Opportunity Grant and the Workforce Improvement Grant, which provided funds for approximately 9,500 students in fiscal year 2016. GO! targeted low-income students, while WIG was for nontraditional students 24 years or older.
Though not an exact match, ArFuture attempts to combine both of those programs into one: low-income and nontraditional students in programs most likely to provide a financial benefit for them — and the local community — in the end. Markham, a former vice chancellor at Cossatot Community College in De Queen, said she saw too many students whose families made a little too much to receive aid but not enough to pay for college.
“This program is available to all incomes,” Markham said. “It does a lot to reduce the student loan burden on our lower middle-class students.
“The states that have implemented the ‘free’ community college programs have seen an increase in the number of students who are attending and completing these short-term credentials to get them back to work. We’ve been very purposeful about creating a program that includes adult students as well.”
In robust northwest Arkansas, Harvey said, the jobs breakdown is approximately 40 percent short-term or entry-level jobs requiring no specific educational background, 35 percent jobs requiring some training or specific skill and 25 percent requiring a formal education such as a four-year degree.
The middle ground — where ArFuture is aimed — is where the region and state can make up the most ground easiest, Harvey said.
“This is an important ingredient,” Hutchinson said. “When you’re at 3.9 percent unemployment rate in the state, you have to provide that opportunity in the workforce for the young people going through the education system, but also for those who might be undertrained, those who might be underemployed, to move up that employment ladder.”