Free tuition now for some in-state students at ASU, NAU, UA

Northern Arizona University (Photo/NAU)

Northern Arizona University (Photo/NAU)

PHOENIX (AP) — 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 added.

Last year only 28 percent 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 percent 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.

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