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For the past decade, the state has paid out small grants to low-income students pursuing college degrees.

But after dismal results, Arkansas is now eyeing a plan to offer free community college to a broader group. The Arkansas Future Grant -- in a bill that has breezed through the state House of Representatives and will soon be before senators for a vote -- would cover students' tuition and mandatory fees at any of the state's technical or community colleges, and for associate degree programs at universities.

It will not cover auxiliary college expenses, such as textbooks, meals, housing and transportation.

If it becomes law, Arkansas Future Grant will use the $9 million that now goes to the state's two need-based financial aid programs in the form of Higher Education Opportunities and the Workforce Improvement grants.

Those grants would no longer be offered, but recipients of the renewable Opportunities Grants would be first in line for the new program, said state Department of Higher Education Director Maria Markham.

The proposal comes at a time when higher-education institutions are relying more on tuition and fee revenue than on state funding. It also comes as the state -- which has historically ranked at or near the bottom in the nation in college graduations -- looks to have more Arkansans with degrees and a workforce prepared for the job market.

Arkansas Future Grant will be for students who graduate from Arkansas high schools or who have lived in the state for at least three years. It will be reserved for students studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM), or in a "high-demand" field, such as welding.

"There were no restrictions on [the old grant programs]: you could major in anything, go anywhere. It was also available at our private institutions," Markham said.

"And [Arkansas Future Grant] is much more targeted, much more aligned with what we know we need. We know we need STEM graduates; we know we need people in high-demand fields. I like to say that this is for students who are poor, but not poor enough."

Tennessee first embraced the idea of free community college, an effort backed by Gov. Bill Haslam in the spring of 2014. The idea got another boost after then-President Barack Obama called for free college during his State of the Union address in 2015, said Dustin Weeden, a senior policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Since then, three other states have joined the movement: Oregon, Minnesota and Kentucky, said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities. And even more states are looking at free-college programs.

"The discussion about sticker price and student debt has kind of put the price of higher education as really expensive and risky," Weeden said. "What gets lost in looking at sticker price is the amount of aid students qualify for. These programs have tried to simplify the discussion a little bit: college is affordable."

The programs more than anything are all about the message, Weeden and Harnisch said.

"We know that nothing in life is free, but that simple ... free-college message really resonates with students, especially lower-income students and those on the margin, and those can really motivate them to go to college," Harnisch said.

He added: "While the message of free college is powerful, policymakers need to know it is a regressive policy measure. It helps students from higher income brackets at the expense of students from lower income brackets." That's because lower-income students often qualify for other financial assistance, such as Pell Grants.

Most of the free-college programs and proposals -- including the one in Arkansas -- are "last dollar" grants, meaning students must use federal and other state aid first before being eligible for the grant. Low-income students are usually eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are reserved for the neediest students and don't have to be repaid. Such aid mostly covers tuition and fees at community or technical colleges.

Higher-education officials say states have limited financial resources, and "last dollar" grants are preferable because they require less from state taxpayers.

In Tennessee, the program covered 16,291 students in its first year, a class that began in the fall of 2015, and it contributed to a 5 percent increase in the college-going rate, said Emily House, assistant executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

The students were not necessarily new to higher education, she said. But, because their tuition was free at two-year schools, some decided to go to college in Tennessee rather than out of state, and some decided to go to two-year institutions instead of four-year universities. The state on average doled out about $1,100 per student in Tennessee Promise scholarships.

"The program has definitely increased enrollment at community and technical colleges," House said. "At the height of the recession, the community colleges were flooded with adult students. Now that the economy is better, there are still many adults enrolled in community colleges but not at the same capacity as before. This program brings community colleges back up and then beyond."

Community colleges that have seen the most growth are in areas where the population is booming, such as Nashville and its suburbs, she said.

In the Tennessee program's first year, the fall-to-spring and fall-to-fall retention rates for the free-tuition students were similar to those of other students, she said. She added that the program's first-year group is on track to graduate this spring, with students receiving associate degrees.

Arkansas Future Grant is modeled in part after Tennessee Promise -- including a mentoring and community service requirement -- and in part after Build Dakota in South Dakota, which includes a three-year commitment to stay in that state after graduation.

Arkansas' program grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, with the Opportunities Grant recipients first in line.

The 7,520 Opportunities Grant recipients will have to maintain eligibility requirements under that program, not the new one, the department said.

The Opportunities Grant program serves more people because it awards smaller amounts, such as $500 a semester. But, over five years, only 15 percent of the 24,363 students awarded such grants had earned associate degrees, and only 18 percent earned bachelor's degrees, according to the Higher Education Department. Another 18 percent of the grant recipients are still enrolled at a college or university.

Markham, Arkansas' Higher Education Department director, said she is expecting that same number of students for the next round of Opportunities Grant disbursements.

The department also found that 90.1 percent of the 8,881 students who received the Opportunities or Workforce Improvement grants in 2015-16 had financial aid packages -- including Pell Grants, scholarships and other aid -- that more than covered the cost of tuition and fees. Those students can use that extra money for other college expenses, such as books or room and board.

The rest -- about 613 students -- did not get any such extra money, data show.

Joshuline Gaynor, 20, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock sophomore, is one of the 613. She gets money from the federal Pell Grant, the state Opportunities Grant, along with a scholarship, but it's not enough to cover all of her college expenses, she said.

The North Little Rock native has also started a work-study program at the campus library and is starting to look for other scholarships for her next few years. She had to take out a college loan last year and this year to cover expenses, but said she doesn't want to add up too much debt.

"Any little amount helps," she said, adding that she is limited to working on campus because she doesn't have a car. "At the same time, I've got to live, so I need money to buy things I need."

Each semester, her biggest challenge is paying for textbooks, she said. This semester was trickier than usual because professors stressed the importance of using the textbooks, one of which she said cost $300.

This semester, even though she took out a bigger loan, "I still had $500 to still pay off, plus my books," said Gaynor, who is studying innovative entrepreneurship. "So I took out around $800 to $900 to pay that off and my books. I didn't get all my books, but I got what I could. And sometimes, you just have to network and find people in class, get their books, things like that. Part of it is, you know, finding people who are willing to help you."

She is trying to pay it forward by sharing her textbook notes online so others in a similar situation can use them.

"It's really hard to focus on the mandatory schoolwork and worry about financial worries outside of it," she said. "I don't get on track probably until the fourth, fifth week of school because I'm dealing with books and financial issues and things like that. So I don't really buckle down until the end of the fourth or fifth week, and I'm not the only person."

The new Arkansas Future Grant will help more students, especially those who don't have high enough ACT college-entrance exam scores to qualify for Arkansas lottery scholarships and who aren't poor enough to get the maximum of $5,815 per year in Pell Grants, Markham said.

Unlike many other free-college programs, Arkansas' proposal will include part-time and nontraditional students, and would pay for five semesters or until a recipient earns an associate degree, whichever comes first. The program also requires grant recipients to work in the state for at least three years after graduating or the grant becomes a loan.

If the new grant program becomes law, it is expected that about 5,600 students would be eligible, and that's a conservative estimate, Markham said.

Tennessee's program covered only traditional students -- those who entered college in the fall after they graduated from high school. Arkansas Future will have a broader scope and is expected to assist more students.

Metro on 02/12/2017

Print Headline: State proposes free tuition, fees for 2-year plans

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