Marcia Hawkins, the first-year president of Union College in Kentucky, feels a special connection with this year’s freshmen, who started at Union the same time she did. So when she decided to host a Christmas party for the class, she knew she wanted to give them something really memorable.
The night of the Christmas party, each student received a stocking. Each stocking contained a few pieces of candy and a miniature scroll, tied up with ribbon and imprinted with a script-like font. Unrolled, the scroll announced the student’s true present: the promise of a tuition-free final semester for those who earned good grades and got involved in college life.
“There were obvious gasps in the audience,” Hawkins said, describing how she told students what was written on the scroll. “While some of them probably don’t really get the significance of that, because they don’t pay for it, there were several who I felt really understood what the opportunity was for them.”
The proposition may be unprecedented. Although some colleges and universities  have offered to freeze tuition levels for students making sufficient progress toward a degree, and others offer a free fifth year  for select students, offering to waive tuition entirely seems to be a new step.
The free semester isn’t automatic, of course. To qualify, students must participate in designated “Inaugural Class” events, participate in at least one extracurricular activity, remain enrolled full-time, perform at least 75 hours of community service, and maintain a GPA of 3.5 or above. Students who meet the activity requirements but whose GPAs falls between 3.0 and 3.49 will have 75 percent of their final semester's tuition paid for; students with GPAs between 2.5 and 2.9 will get half-tuition.
Union has long struggled with retention, Hawkins said; on average, only 50 percent of the freshman class, which starts around 240 students, returns for a second year. In trying to find a reason for its high attrition rate, Hawkins said, there was no specific, identifiable factor or trend that predicted whether or not a student would graduate, even though the population includes a lot of first-generation college students and Pell Grant recipients. Though she acknowledges some students may transfer or leave and come back, she still felt 50 percent was too large a number to lose, and the gravity of this statistic struck her as she was writing her speech for the annual ceremony for the freshman class.
“Here I was, coming in new, and all of these freshmen were coming in new, and I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could give each of them a diploma at the end of their time?” Hawkins said.
She made a point of interacting with freshmen, talking to them on campus, and attending events. But as she made plans for the Christmas party, she realized she could do even more to engage – and as a result, retain – the freshman class. Working with the enrollment department, Hawkins nailed down the details of the sliding scale tuition-waiver program, and quickly got to work on the scrolls.
The “Inaugural Class” program is meant to inspire both students and faculty to make the most of each student’s time at Union. Although the percentage of tuition that is covered is based on grades, Hawkins emphasized that the program is not meant to be purely an academic award.
“It’s about your experience while you’re here,” she said. “If a student just comes and doesn’t get involved, then they’ve lost half the experience, as far as I’m concerned. You have to learn how to talk with other people, how to have a civil argument, how to represent ideas, how to listen to other people’s ideas – and really you can’t do that by just sitting in class and then going to your dorm.”
Depending on how the first year goes, Hawkins envisions offering a similar program to every entering class. And money should not be an issue, because the increased enrollment, by virtue of keeping students at Union longer, will make up for any difference between available financial aid funds and the amount needed to provide the promised tuition waivers.
"If the retention tool is effective, and we keep students with us for four years, the increased revenue will enable us to finance the awards during their first three years with us," said Steve Hoskins, Union's vice president for business and financial services, adding that 95 percent of Union students receive financial aid anyway, so the college will not be losing a full semester's tuition from each qualifying student.
And, if all else fails, Hawkins adds: “This is something I’d have no hesitation fund-raising for.”
Hawkins also hopes the plan will galvanize faculty to prioritize student needs.
“Fifty percent is a ridiculous amount of students to lose,” Hawkins said. “We concentrate too much on getting the class in and not enough on serving them while they’re here. Once they’re here it’s our job – it’s our obligation – to make sure they have the classes they need or to make sure they have a direction.”
She cited instances of faculty refusing to teach certain classes at certain times, or only wanting to operate on a certain schedule. The college has to be more student-centered, Hawkins said, and she hopes the Inaugural Class program will send the message to the faculty that student success – and graduation – is the top priority.
Many professors are excited to see what changes the program brings.
Jimmy Dean Smith, an English professor, said via e-mail, "Our students, many of them first-generation, low-income students from the mountains of Appalachia, face the same complex difficulties that other kids do in this economy. Many local students choose majors based on what will be most 'practical' upon graduation, even if their own desires don't lead them in that direction. The Inaugural Class program will allow more of them to fulfill their dreams of attending this traditional liberal arts college, while also encouraging students with pre-professional majors to graduate in four years."
Educators at Union also say that taking steps to improve graduation rates could benefit the college as a whole. Jason Reeves, dean for educational studies, said in an e-mail that he thinks the promise of a tuition-free last semester is a great incentive for students to stay on track toward their degree. He adds, "I can also see this being a very effective recruiting tool for our department as we compete with other colleges/universities to attract the best and brightest high school students to the teaching profession."