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ABOR working to implement free tuition program for low-income students

The Arizona Promise Program could raise the number of students earning degrees in the state

"The scholarships are part of an effort move Arizona forward economically." Illustration published on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

A new $50 million scholarship program would allow some low-income Arizona students to attend college tuition-free. 

The Arizona Promise Program, which would be implemented by the Arizona Board of Regents, aims to make higher education more accessible by covering tuition and fees for financially needy students enrolled in one of the state’s three public universities, community colleges or colleges that are "operated or chartered by a qualifying Indian tribe on its tribal land on its own Indian reservation."

Students looking to apply must be an Arizona resident, be financially eligible for free and reduced lunch, have graduated high school with a minimum 2.5 GPA, have a completed FAFSA application and be accepted and enrolled in an Arizona public two-year community college or four-year university.

ABOR Chair Larry E. Penley said these qualifications were established to show that the state is committed to making college accessible for all Arizona residents.

“That’s why we focused on students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program as an indication that they are eligible,” Penley said.

Penley said college can be particularly burdensome for low-income families, especially when coupled with additional costs for textbooks, food and housing. He said these expenses can make higher education seem unattainable, but believes the program should help alleviate that burden.

“Part of the purpose of the Arizona Promise scholarship program is to communicate very clearly to modest-income families that their child, their high school student, can go on and get a college degree,” he said.

By expanding the pool of students with degrees, Penley believes that the program will increase the quality of the labor force in Arizona, thereby encouraging business to grow and multiply in the state.

Penley said historically, graduates typically stay in Arizona for a short time, but begin leaving after five years due to a lack of job availability. However, he believes that’s beginning to change.

“When we begin to look at the data 10 years from now, more 20 and 30 year olds will have remained here by virtue of job growth,” Penley said.

While the program was introduced to the state Legislature as SB 1508 in February by Sen. Paul Boyer, it is unlikely to pass this session and Julie Newberg, director of communications for ABOR, said in an email it may several years for the program to be implemented.

However, Rich Nickel, president and CEO of College Success Arizona, an organization dedicated to increasing the college attainment rate in Arizona, said there is an "excellent shot" the program could still be approved through ABOR's budget request process.

Currently, Arizona’s low-income students rely mainly on federal aid like Pell Grants and work study programs. In 2019, 66,525 students across the state’s three public universities received federally funded gift aid, according to ABOR's financial aid report for that year.

Nickel said the state could greatly benefit from a state-sponsored need-based grant program.

“Almost every other state at some time or another has directly invested in students through some type of program,” he said. 

Nickel said the promise program would be crucial for Arizona to reach its educational attainment goal — that 60% of adults 25 to 64 hold a postsecondary degree by 2030.

“(It) would incentivize folks who are from a low-income background to attend ASU, other universities or community colleges at a rate that we really need to see if we’re going to reach our goals,” Nickel said.

Nikhil Dave, a third-year student studying neuroscience and innovation and society, and one of ABOR’s student regents, also feels that the initiative will further encourage students to remain in Arizona.

“State-sponsored education is what really drives (students) to come back and contribute to the economy, to continue building up that state,” he said.

As a student who was able to attend ASU through scholarships, Dave understands the importance of the Arizona Promise Program. One benefit he’s found is that these programs allow students to encounter perspectives different from their own.

“We are giving more of the Arizona high school population the opportunity to come to a university, (and) with that means a more diversified student body,” he said. “That increase in diversity is particularly helpful for any student going to ASU.”

The program, which is part of ABOR's budget negotiation process, may take multiple years to acquire the proper funding needed for it be implemented.

“The Arizona Promise Program is a step in the right direction,” Dave said. “(It) puts us on the right trajectory to move forward, to continue to advance this mission that states should sponsor and support students getting an education.”

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