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UCA lays path for under $100K freshmen to pay for tuition, fees

In an inter
Talk Business & Politics
In an interview with Talk Business & Politics, Houston Davis discusses the state of higher education.

Starting in the fall of 2024, incoming University of Central Arkansas freshmen coming from families earning up to $100,000 can opt into a program giving them a pathway to pay their tuition and mandatory fees.

They’ll be able to do so through the UCA Commitment program announced on campus Sept. 7 by the university’s president, Dr. Houston Davis.

The program’s focus will be on helping students obtain aid with money that is already available to them. Students who opt in to the program will be required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which he said many don’t do. Case managers will ensure they also apply for the lottery-funded Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship and will help them apply for other scholarships. The remaining gaps for any particular students could be filled by UCA scholarships and work study opportunities.

“We believe that higher education should be about removing barriers and opening doors,” Davis said at the announcement.

Davis said the cost of a higher education discourages some young people and their families from trying to attain it. He said the percentage of new high school graduates in Arkansas enrolling in college, which has been falling for decades, fell from 51% in 2017 to 42% in the fall of 2021.

Davis told reporters afterwards that he expects about 758 students to participate in the first cohort. That number would grow to 2,400 to 2,800 when it reaches maturity. The college should see some increase in students as a result of the program, much of it from student retention. The school has a retention rate of 78% to 79% freshman to sophomore year. The six-year graduation rate is about 50%.

Enrollment including graduate students is around 10,000 and is “stable,” he said.

The announcement came alongside another announcement by Davis that the university is closing out its $100 million UCA Now program 10 months early. The eight-year program began its quiet phase in 2017, publicly launched in April 2021 and was scheduled to end in June 2024.

UCA Now began with a $20 million donation from the Windgate Foundation and ended with another $10 million gift from the foundation that raised the total to $109,016,889.

Davis told reporters that the $10 million gift both closes out the UCA Now program and supports UCA Commitment. He said $5 million will go toward an endowment for UCA Commitment and another $5 million will go toward scholarship operations. UCA has not yet determined if it will do a small fundraising campaign around the program.

He said UCA has money to cover the program with $29 million in existing public and private scholarships and $5 million in work study and student work, with another $2 million coming in annually for the program.

Davis said students would have an average of little more than $3,000 in unmet needs. He said around 45% of UCA’s current students would be eligible because they come from households meeting the $100,000 income level.

“In the modeling, the least that we had for a student and for unmet need was $16. The most was $7,300,” he said. “When we looked at the $7,300, that was a student who was eligible for Pell [grants] and eligible for [Academic] Challenge, but hadn’t filled out the forms.”

He said colleges need to maximize their available resources. When he arrived, some students were receiving scholarships covering 172% of need – about $4,500 more than they needed. Meanwhile, other students weren’t getting help. He said the school has been looking for efficiencies throughout its $192 million budget through its Resource Optimization Initiative.

The UCA Now program had enabled the college to construct the Windgate Center for Fine and Performing Arts where the announcement was held. It also created 139 new scholarships and 18 new faculty and programmatic endowments.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.