FAFSA Redesign Delays Arkansas Universities’ Free Tuition Program Rollout

FAFSA's latest updates has prevented Arkansas university students from knowing if they qualify for new free tuition programs.

University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis makes an announcement about UCA Commitment on Sept. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of UCA)

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The delayed release of an updated financial aid form has prevented students from knowing if they qualify for new free tuition programs at Arkansas universities.

This fall the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway each announced last-dollar scholarships, which cover what’s left in tuition and fees after federal and state aid is applied to students’ accounts.

All three institutions require students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which is being redesigned and should be available by Dec. 31, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The form is typically available in October, and the postponement is making Jonathan Coleman “anxious” as UALR’s director of financial aid and scholarships.

“At this point we can’t even tell students who’s eligible for it because we don’t know. The feds don’t even know,” Coleman said. “So hopefully we’ll be able to start communicating with students by mid-February, but that’s just kind of a fingers crossed, let’s hope.”

In the fall of 2024, UALR will offer the Trojan Guarantee program to all freshmen who are Pell Grant-eligible and receive the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship.

Students are not required to live or work on campus or complete an additional form, Coleman said. They simply must apply for admission and the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship and complete the FAFSA form.

The scholarship will be renewable for three years, and officials anticipate awarding it to about 200 freshmen during the inaugural year. The initiative is being supported through a combination of private and institutional funds, Coleman said. This includes a $25 million gift UALR received from an anonymous donor in 2020, $15 million of which was earmarked to establish need-based scholarships.

Coleman said UALR has focused on affordability because the institution has several first-generation and low-income students. Additionally, higher education has increased nationwide and more students are selecting colleges based on affordability rather than an academic program, Coleman said.

According to a 2023 Hanover Research report, 46% of surveyed students said they were very or extremely likely to enroll in an institution, but 34% of respondents with higher education doubts cited financial barriers as their primary concern.

“It’s important to give students the opportunity,” Coleman said. “Whether they come or not, it’s up to them, but it’s important that we message that they can if they want to, even if it’s for a semester…some college is better than no college, especially if we’re going to help you pay for it without student loans.”

As a first-generation student, UALR senior Joe Santana said he didn’t know how to apply for scholarships when he started college at a different institution. Because he didn’t receive financial aid, Santana took out student loans.

“My parents, they’re not wealthy,” he said. “They’re immigrants from Mexico and they’ve built everything they have from scratch, so as their first child, they wanted to give opportunities to me and I’m very grateful for them.”

The Dumas native switched to UA-Little Rock his junior year and was pleasantly surprised to receive a scholarship just for transferring. His younger brother enrolled as a freshman at the same time and received the Fifty-Fresh Scholarship, which offers half-off tuition for eligible students.

That scholarship can be combined with the Trojan Guarantee, Coleman said.

Having learned to navigate college and financial aid on his own, Santana said he feels it’s his duty to assist younger family members, like his cousin who’s graduating high school next year and considering attending UALR.

Santana said it’s important for colleges to advertise financial aid opportunities, especially to first-generation students, and he’s grateful assistance is available.

“I didn’t know how to apply for scholarships and I feel like that is one reason I really couldn’t have any,” Santana said. “UALR having the new scholarships, I hear almost every year it’s something new, it makes me happy because students who have a passion for school like me and didn’t have a lot of money can get a chance at school.”

Arkansas State University

Arkansas State University has launched a statewide advertising campaign promoting its new last-dollar scholarship, A-State Promise Plus.

In addition to announcing the initiative during a Sept. 27 press conference, the university has pushed out advertising on social media and billboards around Arkansas, including in places where people aren’t used to seeing an ASU presence, Interim Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Todd Clark said.

“We’ve got a new attitude as an institution,” Clark said. “We’re going to plant our flag in the state as well, and there are a lot of reasons why now is a good time for A-State. Now’s the time. We’ve got a lot of momentum.”

A-State Promise Plus is for students whose households make less than $70,000. The “plus” part of the scholarship, Clark said, is additional funding for on-campus housing.

First-year students receive a $2,500 housing scholarship that increases to $4,500 a year for students who continue to live on campus for their sophomore through senior years.

As everyone awaits the release of the revised FAFSA form, Clark said Arkansas State is encouraging students to apply for admission and submit a College Scholarship Service Profile.

“If students are willing to submit the CSS Profile, then we are able to determine their eligibility and can start the groundwork for putting together an award package for them, basically an estimate of what we think the Promise Plus will be for them,” Clark said. “Once we get a completed FAFSA, once it gets released, then we’ll be able to lock in their specific award package.”

University of Central Arkansas

The UCA Commitment is open to incoming freshmen at the University of Central Arkansas who are Pell-eligible or whose households make less than $100,000 annually.

Courtney Bryant, associate vice president for enrollment management and UCA commitment director, said there’s a mistrust from some students about the new program because it seems “too good to be true.” Bryant said the FAFSA delay is making it difficult to dispel those concerns.

“This time last year half of our freshman applicants had already submitted their FAFSA, while now we have zero,” she said. “And so we have this wonderful opportunity and we can direct students on what they can be doing…but we can’t definitively say you are eligible for the UCA Commitment because we don’t have all the data points.”

UCA President Houston Davis unveiled the scholarship program and a $10 million gift from the Windgate Foundation in September. He told reporters the donation closed out the school’s capital campaign and supports UCA Commitment. He said $5 million will support an endowment for UCA Commitment and $5 million will support scholarship operations.

Bryant said the university anticipates 40% of incoming freshmen will be eligible, roughly 750-800 students. A unique component of the scholarship is its service requirement of 10 hours per semester.

While finances can be a barrier for college students, Bryant said engagement and belonging are also challenges. Research shows engaged students are more likely to be retained, so the service requirement is a way to invest in students, she said.

“The overall goal is to get them to that degree, so just the retention component is huge as far as the purpose and drive for what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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