The University of Arkansas at Little Rock last week unveiled a scholarship program that will offer free tuition to most freshmen starting in fall 2024, making it the latest college in Arkansas to offer such a program.
The University of Central Arkansas in Conway and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro recently announced similar “last dollar” scholarships, which cover any remaining gaps between the federal and state grants or scholarships a student might receive and any outstanding tuition payments and fees.
“There’s a growing trend of ‘last dollar,’ tuition-free public college programs across the country, where the institution or the state will cover tuition costs after subtracting out federal and state financial aid,” Thomas L. Harnisch, vice president for government relations for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, told Arkansas Business. “And the power of these programs is in the clear, simple message of public college being tuition free. Everyone understands ‘free.’”
The scholarship programs also are expected to increase enrollment as colleges brace for the “enrollment cliff,” which is projected as a result of a fall in birth rates after 2008 and the financial crisis and is expected to hit starting in 2025. Undergraduate freshman enrollment across the country declined 3.6% in the fall of 2023, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center of Herndon, Virginia.
Harnisch said many colleges are seeing enrollment fall partly because of perceptions of the high debt students will face after graduating.
Total students enrolled in the fall semester
Arkansas State University, Jonesboro
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
University of Central Arkansas, Conway
*Preliminary, Source: Arkansas Department of Higher Education
But the tuition aid programs “help make the case that college can be affordable,” he said. “And the free tuition conversation can not only get students to enroll, but can also get them to persist to graduation, because for many students, they see the sticker price and that can end the conversation right there.”
Even though low- and lower middle-income families usually qualify for substantial financial aid, economic research suggests that the advertised price is important in choosing a college, Nathan Grawe, professor of economics at Carleton College of Northfield, Minnesota, told Arkansas Business via email.
“We also see that low-income families are risk-averse when it comes to college attendance,” he said. “They can’t afford to throw a lot of money into an education that might or might not pay off in relatively quick order.”
But “free” goes a long way toward soothing those concerns, he said. “Of course, free tuition doesn’t mean the family doesn’t face costs of room and board. But free tuition is a compelling selling point.”
The Arkansas colleges that are offering the free tuition aid require that students receive the Arkansas Academic Challenge scholarship, which is funded in large part by the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery. Students attending a four-year college can receive a total of $14,000 over four years.
Students are also required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which current and prospective college students fill out to determine their eligibility for student financial aid.
Arkansas State University
In September, Arkansas State University at Jonesboro announced its scholarship program providing free tuition for students whose families have a household income of $70,000 or less.
Starting in the fall of 2024, the A-State Promise Plus will cover the remaining tuition costs after a student receives federal grants and the Arkansas Academic Challenge funds.
“Pulling people out of poverty and particularly first-generation students was a passion of mine,” said Chancellor Todd Shields, who joined A-State in 2022. “I know so many students that are first generation, and they just don’t even think about going to college because the prices have gone so high.”
Tuition for in-state, undergraduate students is about $9,700 a year.
Shields said that restructuring A-State’s scholarship programs allowed for the university’s Promise Plus. The university’s merit scholarships will remain in place.
“Someone who shows the aptitude to do well in college, … let’s make sure that you can come here,” Shields said. “Let’s use your Pell Grant. Let’s use your state lottery scholarship. And then whatever you have remaining, we’ll cover it from our scholarship pool, as well as give you some scholarships for housing.”
In addition to the tuition scholarship, a $2,500 housing scholarship is included to help first-year students live on campus, he said.
“Every study shows that if a student lives on campus they feel like they belong,” Shields said. “They’re much more likely to succeed, … and they’re much more likely to graduate.”
He said the cost of the scholarship program will depend on how many students use it.
Shields said that A-State didn’t want to add a work-study component to the scholarship because students would have the best chance to succeed if they focused on school.
A-State will help students apply for the lottery scholarships and the Pell Grants.
Some students didn’t understand what they needed to do to keep their Arkansas Lottery Scholarship after their freshman year, he said.
A-State is expected to see more students as a result of the scholarship. In the fall of 2023, A-State said it set a record with a preliminary fall enrollment with 14,903 students on the 11th day of classes.
Shields touted that A-State is the only school in the state that has a medical school on campus and is adding a College of Veterinary Medicine, possibly by the fall of 2025.
In a typical year, 40%-50% of the students would be eligible for A-State Promise Plus.
“I love going to bed at night, smiling, knowing that we’re changing the lives of people, not only their individual life, but as they grow up and succeed in their careers,” Shields said. “And know that we’re really helping Arkansas from an economic standpoint as well as developing citizens.”
UA Little Rock
UA Little Rock’s priority to make college more affordable has been in place for several years, said Cody Decker, vice chancellor of student affairs and chief data officer.
In 2020, the university announced a half-off tuition scholarship available for full-time, first-time freshmen. Full-time tuition and fees for all students total about $9,800.
Under that scholarship program and with the funds from the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship, a student could earn a bachelor’s degree from UA Little Rock for $14,000 or less.
The half-off tuition also resulted in a “substantial” boost to the school’s enrollment, Decker said.
In the fall of 2022, it had a 29.5% increase in freshman enrollment, the largest increase in the school’s history.
The half-off scholarship covered the majority of the tuition, “but there was still some left,” Decker said. “And so we put pen to paper to see how we could structure our scholarship portfolio to help these families.”
On Wednesday, UA Little Rock announced the Trojan Guarantee. If a freshman receives the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship, and if they’re eligible to receive Pell Grants, UA Little Rock, through the Trojan Guarantee, will cover the remaining tuition and fee costs associated with a bachelor’s degree.
The Trojan Guarantee will be paid for by a combination of institutional and private funds, Decker said.
In 2020, UA Little Rock received a $25 million anonymous gift for the half-off tuition scholarships. So far, that program has awarded $2.9 million in scholarships to about 950 students.
With the Trojan Guarantee, “there’s no work requirements,” Decker said. “There’s no live on campus requirements for it.”
UA Little Rock decided not to have a family income requirement tied to the scholarship. Decker said that every family is different and the school wanted the scholarship to accommodate any family income level.
“As long as a student is Pell eligible, we’re not so concerned about the family income,” he said.
He said that UA Little Rock’s financial aid office will calculate the scholarship amount for each student.
But the student’s requirements are being a full-time, first-time freshman or freshman transfer, recipient of the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship and be eligible for Pell Grants.
“The university is going to take care of the rest,” Decker said.
University of Central Arkansas
The University of Central Arkansas recently unveiled its UCA Commitment, which it described on its website as a “groundbreaking, debt-free pathway for tuition and fees for incoming Arkansas freshmen with an annual household income of $100,000 or less.”
UCA President Houston Davis told Arkansas Business that UCA will work with in-state freshmen in the fall of 2024 to make sure that they are getting all the grant and financial aid money that they are eligible to receive.
Then, with a mix of a scholarship and possibly work-study opportunity, the UCA Commitment will cover the rest of the costs so students don’t have to take out a loan to cover that gap.
To qualify, every student will be required to fill out the FAFSA form and apply for the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship.
UCA recently announced that it received a $10 million gift from the Windgate Foundation to support the UCA Commitment. UCA also is working with other donors to support the UCA Commitment and help more students.
Tuition and mandatory fees at UCA total about $10,000 a year, and about half of the students who graduate don’t have any debt, Davis said. For those students who have loan debt, it’s around $23,000, he said.
UCA formed a group, called the Moonshot Team, in June 2022 to solve the problem of students who qualified for Pell Grants but are still left with student debt after graduating. The group, which started out with seven or eight people, grew to 40. The result was the UCA Commitment.
Davis said that models show UCA would have enough money to cover tuition costs remaining after Pell Grants and money from the Arkansas Challenge Scholarship are applied.
About 40% of the incoming freshmen, or about 750 students, are expected to be helped by the UCA Commitment in the first year, and by the fourth year between 2,600 and 2,800 students will have received the scholarship.
“We feel very confident about where we are … to make certain that we’re maximizing all of our budget scholarship dollars against tuition fees,” Davis said.
He said it’s still early to say if UCA will see an increase of students because of the program because the admission standards are going to remain the same.
But there are some indicators that there will be a boost in enrollment in the fall, he said.
“We already have seen a very sizable increase in the number of students that have applied for housing applications that will be freshmen in the fall of ’24,” Davis said. “Those are good indicators that the response to the UCA Commitment has been very positive.”
The program’s impact will be on those students who are in academic good standing but drop out of school because of financial reasons, he said.
“As we’ve modeled this program, that’s really where the growth is,” he said, “on being able to allow students to be able to stay at school.”