‘This is a Promise’: Thousands of Arizona Students Can Now Go to ASU, NAU and UA for Free
This article originally appeared on AZCentral on December 10, 2021.
Thousands of Arizona high school students can now get free college tuition thanks to a new statewide scholarship program.
The Arizona Promise Program will provide scholarships for eligible low-income students to fully cover their tuition and fees if they enroll at one of the three state universities — Arizona State University, the University of Arizona or Northern Arizona University.
The goal is to make higher education more accessible for students from low-income families, a necessary step for a strong future economy in the state.
The Arizona Legislature approved the new program earlier this year.
“The universities for years have had lots of financial aid, but what we’ve done here is passed a state law that requires it,” said John Arnold, executive director of the Arizona Board of Regents, which is overseeing the scholarship.
“So it’s not a decision, there’s not a pool of money, it’s not first come first served — it is state law that if you do your part, you graduate from high school, you meet the admission requirements for the university, if you are a low-income family, you go without tuition and fees. I think it’s a really powerful message," Arnold said.
Last year only 28% of Arizona public high school graduates enrolled in a four-year college, and the rate was even lower for low-income students, per an analysis from the Board of Regents. At the current pace, only about 17% of Arizona’s current ninth-graders will have a four-year degree by 2029, much lower than the expected portion of jobs that will require that level of education.
The scholarship will cover all eligible students who enroll at a state university. Students who meet the qualifications will automatically get the funding through their university.
An estimated 3,800 students currently enrolled at the three universities are expected to be eligible for the program and funded this spring, according to data from the Board of Regents.
The total universe of eligible Arizona high school students is not clear, but last year about 12,400 Arizona students who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid would have financially qualified, according to the board. Likely even more students are eligible for the promise program but did not fill out the financial aid form in anticipation of applying to college.
State lawmakers funded the program with an initial $7.5 million this year, and the board is pushing for over $30 million next session. But regardless of state allocations, all eligible students will get funding.
Many states and cities already have promise programs in place — locally, for example, Mesa has a free tuition program for Mesa Community College students.
The hope is that this state scholarship will help increase Arizona’s relatively low level of college completion and also incentivize high school students to be college-ready and graduate so they can have access to free tuition.
“It’s messaging down into eighth, ninth, tenth grade to students and their families who are making long-term decisions about their academic career, that even if you’re a very low-income person, you can go to college, that avenue is available to you, that our state wants you to go to college, and we want that promise there for you," Arnold said.
Who is eligible for free college?
Students who qualify get a guarantee that their tuition and fees will be covered, according to the board. The scholarship fills any gaps for students in tuition and fees after their Pell Grant and any other aid they may receive.
“This is a promise. It’s a guarantee,” Arnold said. “If you meet all of those criteria, you receive the scholarship.”
Scholarships are starting this coming spring semester for qualified students who already are enrolled. The board and three universities are working on plans to market it across the state to get more eligible students aware of the program and ready to enroll next fall.
To be eligible, students must:
- Be Arizona residents and graduates of an Arizona high school.
- Enroll as a first-time, full-time, on-campus and degree-seeking student at ASU, UA or NAU after high school. (Online students currently are not eligible.)
- Have a high school GPA of 2.5 or higher.
- Submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid to the U.S. Department of Education and submit a
- FAFSA to the university no later than April 1 of the year before they will enroll.
- Qualify for the maximum federal Pell Grant award with zero expected family contribution.
Students awarded will:
- Be eligible for the scholarship for eight semesters. Tuition, mandatory fees and program fees will be covered.
- Have to submit a FAFSA by April 1 each year.
- Be awarded each year if they maintain full-time status, keep academic progress and continue to meet eligibility requirements.
An easy way to think about financial eligibility is if a family qualifies for SNAP benefits, they are eligible for this scholarship, Arnold said.
Students are likely maximum Pell-eligible if their family’s income is less than around $27,000 and if they meet some other requirements.
The maximum Pell award for this school year is $6,495, so the state-funded scholarship will go a long way in helping cover the remaining tuition and fees. Full resident state tuition is as high as $12,700.
The scholarship does not cover costs like books, food and housing, which are significant expenses, according to a recent board report. Arizona undergraduates spend an average of $1,000 on books and supplies and $12,000 on room and board, for example.
Arnold said the board wanted a program that could be a start and could get through the Legislature. There are other scholarship opportunities in addition that can help cover those other costs, he said.
And while the promise program is targeted at the lowest-income students, there are many other forms of financial aid for students who don’t qualify for this, Arnold said.
Helping lowest-income families
College-going rates in Arizona trail the national average, and they are especially low for students from low-income households.
Although about 40% of Arizona public high school graduates come from economically disadvantaged households, they make up just 28% of graduates’ enrollments at the three public universities, and only about 20% of the degree completers, according to a recent analysis by the Board of Regents.
The perception that higher education is unaffordable is a key reason why students don’t pursue four-year degrees, according to Arnold.
“I think what happens is students and families look at the tuition costs, and they just think or they have the perception that college is not in reach, that financially they’ll never be able to go to college, and so they make academic decisions in high school that ultimately prohibit them from going to college,” Arnold said.
"They’ve lost that aspiration to a degree, and we need to reignite that so that they start pursuing that and build those academic habits that are necessary to be successful.”
The cost of attending an Arizona public university increased significantly just over 10 years ago as state funds declined, and the average direct cost of attendance for an Arizona resident on-campus student was about $25,500 last year, per a board report.
The three universities have worked to expand financial aid options in recent years, but there’s still unmet need, plus those students who don’t enroll to begin with because of the price tag. Last year, 80% of undergraduates received some sort of financial aid, including need-based and merit-based. On average about 56% of the need was met, the board report shows.
A key step forward
Regents and education advocates believe the promise program is an important step toward making college affordable for families most in need. Similar programs in other states have boosted high school graduation rates, college enrollment rates and college completion rates, according to the board.
“I’ve talked to parents who live in neighborhoods where no one has graduated from college, no one has attended college, and it’s very typical for a father or a mother to say to their child, ‘I’m sorry, we just can’t afford that,” Board of Regents member Larry Penley said during a recent board meeting.
Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, said state investment in a promise program is a key approach to boosting college-going and completion. He hopes a future iteration of the program might expand to pay for students to attend Arizona community colleges as well.
“The No. 1 thing we think we could do is truly invest in a state-sponsored, need-based aid program that allows students to know that if they meet certain criteria, that they’re going to be able to go to a university or a community college of their choice here in the state.”
The promise scholarship made its way through the Legislature as part of the universities’ broader pitch about contributing to Arizona’s economy and preparing future workers for economic change. Part of that was how to get more students educated so they can contribute to the future workforce.
Paul Luna, president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation, said the promise program is exactly what the state needs to be doing.
“That’s an important step to help remove the barrier — even the perceived barrier — of financial issues for so many students that prevent them from going to college.”
But, Luna added, it's the first step and can't be the only step in the need for a range of efforts to address all the barriers students might have in pursuing higher education.