State lawmakers hope that boosting the money available to the Department of Higher Education to market the 2-year-old Arkansas Future Grant program will lead to more students applying and receiving its financial help.
The Arkansas Future program, created by a 2017 act, has $9 million available each fiscal year to provide grants for eligible students in qualifying certificate and associate degree programs at public institutions. But the number of students receiving funds has fallen short of expectations. The total amount awarded topped $1 million so far this fiscal year.
Under current law, the grants can be made to students pursuing STEM-related fields -- science, technology, engineering and math. The grants also can be used for areas of study in fields that are in demand in specific regions of the state. A state law taking effect this summer will expand the fields in which the program applies.
The grant is the "last dollar," used to cover the remaining costs of tuition, fees and materials not paid by scholarships or federal aid. There is no cap on the award at two-year colleges; at a university, the award is capped at the average cost of the same program at a two-year college, said Maria Markham, higher-education director.
Another state law, Act 873 of 2019, authorized the agency to transfer $295,000 in general revenue to promote the scholarship and grant programs that aren't funded by the state lottery. The act says the department must use at least $147,500 of that amount to promote the Arkansas Future Grant program. Act 873, the department's appropriation, takes effect in fiscal 2020, which starts July 1.
"The goal of the [promotional] money is to increase the number of Arkansans with a credential -- either a certificate or degree by 2025," said department spokesman Alisha Lewis.
VIDEOS, RADIO, T-SHIRTS
The marketing plan includes a video to show at theaters before the movie starts; radio spots played during high school events; digital and text services; a television ad; and promotional items such as T-shirts, hats and jump drives with application information.
The Legislature added the promotional funds to the department's appropriation at the request of Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock.
That came after the Legislative Council -- the body of lawmakers that meets between legislative sessions -- and the Joint Budget Committee last fall asked the department to propose a budget to pay for marketing scholarship and grant programs that aren't financed by the state lottery.
Bond said the state needs to be "more aggressive" in promoting job training as well as other educational opportunities because "an educated workforce is the No. 1 thing" in economic development.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers -- who sponsored Act 316 of 2017 that created the Arkansas Future program -- said she agrees with Bond that the program needs to be advertised more. She said she sometimes runs into people who are unaware of it.
Act 316 phased out two other programs -- the Workforce Improvement Act and the Higher Education Opportunities Grant -- to provide $9 million a year in general revenue for the Arkansas Future program.
In 2017, Markham said she expected about 6,500 students to take part in the new grant program, but she also expected most students would draw much less than the maximum allowed because other scholarships are available.
Markham "expected the program to reach potential within five years of implementation," Lewis, the higher education spokesman, said last week.
"The slow growth was admittedly due to the emergency clause passed within the  session that implemented the program before communication regarding it was widely effective," Lewis said. The emergency clause allowed students to take advantage of the program in the fall of 2017.
"High school counselors and college advisers were our primary audience; however, adults returning to college or potentially returning to college present a bigger communication/marketing challenge. These adults are typically working in lower wage positions and have limited access to traditional advertising channels," Lewis said.
In fiscal 2018, 322 students received an average grant of $1,558, Lewis said. That's roughly $500,000.
So far in fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, 628 students received an average grant of $1,914, she said. That's about $1.2 million.
The leftover funds are redirected to other programs where demand has outpaced funding levels, Lewis said.
"This allows for all of our scholarship and grant programs to fully meet the current demand without the need for additional state dollars," she said.
In fiscal 2018, which ended June 30 last year, the department distributed $33.5 million through scholarship and grant programs, including $17.7 million for the Governor's Distinguished Scholars and $5.4 million in health education grants and loans, according to department records.
In addition, the department distributed $91.9 million in Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships, which are financed by the lottery along with $20 million a year in general revenue. The lottery will spend $482,234.50 of its $8 million marketing budget advertising the scholarship, said lottery Director Bishop Woosley.
Lewis said it's too early to determine if the Arkansas Future grant program has failed to meet expectations, "although it was short of projections.
"The allocation of money for external communications is a step in the right direction to help make the state aware of the vast number of scholarship/grant programs available," she said.
Students at Southern Arkansas University Tech in Camden and Arkansas Tech University, Ozark campus, have been the largest recipients of the Arkansas Future Grant funds so far, with the Camden campus receiving $351,474 and $297,248 at the Ozark school, Higher Education Department records show.
Students at the College of Ouachitas in Malvern collectively received $146,791, while those at Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas in De Queen received $103,110. Those at North Arkansas College in Harrison received $102,950, department records show.
Fifty-four of the Arkansas Tech-Ozark's degree and certificate programs qualify for the program and three programs don't qualify, said Richard Harris, chief student officer.
Promoting the Arkansas Future program "is part of our recruiting effort," Harris said, adding he would like to think each student is aware of it.
"This is all built on degrees that lead to an occupation so our Ozark campus [has] stayed true to our mission," said Chancellor Bruce Sikes.
Act 618 of 2019, sponsored by Bond, will expand the pool of eligible students to include certificate and associate degree programs in accounting, finance, nursing and education fields as well as information technology, data analysis and graphic design. It also adds statewide high-demand fields.
"I thought it was too restrictive on who could use it," Bond said in an interview.
That law also will change the monthly mentoring requirement for grant recipients so they certify at least once per semester rather than once each month that mentors have provided services. The law also reduced a community-service requirement for students, from 15 hours to 10 hours a semester.
Bond said the current requirements could be a barrier for nontraditional students with jobs and children.
Noting the reduced community service and mentoring requirements, Gov. Asa Hutchinson's spokesman, J.R. Davis, said that the "mentoring concern was not caught until the bill had already passed, so the governor let it go into law without his signature.
"The agency understands the concerns and their rules require the higher level of mentoring," Davis said.
Besides the mentoring and community service mandates, students are required to reside in Arkansas for three consecutive years and be employed starting within six months after receiving an associate degree or certification, according to the department. If the student fails to meet this requirement, the grant will covert into a loan.
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