A couple dozen of the nation’s elite private institutions and flagship publics have steadily committed  over the past few years to pick up the tuition tab in packaged “promise” programs targeted for the neediest students. But, as some commentators have pointed out, the typically wealthy institutions that have committed to cover tuition costs for low-income students also generally have high admission standards and limited low-income enrollment -- meaning that their actions, however well-intentioned, still fall far short of reaching the vast majority of students from low-income families.
That may be changing in one of the country's most populous states, where the message of access that these programs send may soon sound in a unified and in some ways unprecedented pitch. A new effort espoused by the University of Texas System -- already in practice or in progress at seven of the nine universities -- is expected to extend these types of institutional promises comprehensively and consistently across the UT institutions, many of which serve large low-income populations. At UT's Pan American campus in the Rio Grande Valley, for instance, where an initiative was announced this week , the director of financial aid estimated that about 50 percent of students come from families with incomes of $25,000 or less, the cutoff point for the new programs.
“Over and over again, we’re learning that the biggest barrier is that students are saying they can’t go to college because they can’t afford it. It’s hard to get that message across that they can. We hope that hundreds and ultimately thousands of students will get this message, whether they’re in El Paso or Edinburg or Brownsville or Arlington or wherever they are,” said Geri H. Malandra, interim executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the UT system.
“From what I’ve been hearing this week,” Malandra added, “I anticipate that we will have all nine of the academic institutions that are part of the UT System involved.”
The UT institutions have been dropping their hats into the ring one after another this past week, with the universities at Arlington, Pan American , Permian Basin , San Antonio  and Tyler  all announcing their plans to pledge free tuition and fees for Texas residents from families with an income level of $25,000 or below, a substantially lower income threshold than that set by the wealthier publics and privates with similar programs. UT-Austin, Texas’ highly selective flagship, has had a program in place for a couple of years now with a $40,000 income threshold, and UT El Paso , which unveiled in the spring its “UTEP Promise” for students whose families make $25,000 or less, had 590 students affected by the program in its first semester this fall. The remaining two universities, at Brownsville and Dallas, are still considering joining the initiative, Malandra said.
The characteristics of the programs vary from institution to institution, with some open only to incoming freshmen, others to all students. Most of the newly announced programs are set to launch in fall 2007, though the program at Permian Basin will be open to incoming freshmen as of this spring.
However, commonalities abound. To remain eligible, students must attend full-time, completing 30 credit hours each year, and most of the initiatives require that students maintain a minimum of a 2.0 grade point average. Corresponding academic and social support programs are also a common thread. “In addition to sending the right signal to incoming students and countering the fears that have been generated by increased tuition announcements, in addition to all of that, this provides students with some incentives to enroll full time, to make steady progress toward their degrees and to seek our help in planning for their enrollment,” said Diana S. Natalicio, president of Texas-El Paso, located alongside the Mexican border.
In addition, students must complete financial aid documentation, with the universities standing ready to fill in the gap not covered by federal Pell Grants with state and university scholarship sources. At the Tyler campus, for example, Dale Lunsford, vice president for student affairs and external relations, said there’s about a $1,000 gap in funding between the maximum yearly Pell Grant, frozen at $4,050 for several years now, and annual tuition and fees, valued at around $5,000.
The commitments will require a reallocation of resources and a financial investment on the part of each participating institution. To take two examples, Tyler has budgeted $350,000 for the first year, and San Antonio expects it will take $600,000 to $800,000 in state and institutional funds to launch UTSAccess. But many administrators stressed that the cost, which largely will be funded through revenue from tuition increases that must be set aside for aid under the state’s tuition deregulation legislation, will be manageable. In many ways, they say, the institutions are simply repackaging and marketing financial aid polices that are already tacitly in place.
“This is not a vast departure from what we’ve been doing for a very long time,” said Dana Dunn, provost at UT-Arlington, which expects to reach at least 2,000 students with its tuition initiative, announced Wednesday afternoon. “The reality is that students of this income level generally have received this benefit. But what we’ve come to understand increasingly as tuition has become a hot-button issue is that a large percentage of the public doesn’t understand what the real cost of education is after the aid received.”
Henry Cantu, director of student enrollment services for UT-San Antonio, where 42 percent of students receive Pell Grants, said these types of tuition promises fit well within the missions of institutions that pride themselves on their legacies of access. “We’ve got a plan that’s in place to really push our institution to Tier I status as far as research, while at the same time keeping our original mission of access for students in this community in Central and South Texas. This program was designed to try to continue to really encourage students who are finding it difficult to afford a college education to attend UTSA," said Cantu.
“The first thing that’s really powerful is that there are several institutions within the Texas system that are sending the same message,” said Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she oversees the “Carolina Covenant”  program, which covers costs for the neediest of UNC’s students. Just three of the 16 institutions in North Carolina’s system – including Appalachian State University, which just this week announced a new, privately funded program to cover tuition, fees, room, board and books, plus a $1,000 stipend, for students at up to 100 percent of the poverty level -- offer similar initiatives.
“In our circumstance here, we can talk about the Carolina Covenant, but if they don’t make it into Carolina in terms of admissions, they don’t get that benefit,” said Ort. In Texas, “there’s going to be a mutually reinforcing message. There are going to be students and parents who are going to hear it from more than one school.”
But several other experts on student aid said the new UT programs, with their low income thresholds, are, while positive actions, likely to do little to solve what is a systemic problem. Robert Shireman, founder and president of the Institute for College Access and Success , said the cost of tuition, already covered by grant aid for more than two-thirds of dependent Texas public four-year university students, is not the barrier. “When costs beyond tuition are considered, the students are an average of $9,000 short,” Shireman said via e-mail.
“The reality is that while families worry about tuition, it is actually the other costs that undermine success for low-income families. In particular, the financial cost of not working -- or, alternatively, the academic cost of working too much -- undermines their goal of a college degree.” The requirement that students take a full credit load to qualify for these programs, Shireman added, while a laudable goal, will probably pose a particular challenge to the low-income students who hold down jobs.
“There’s just a staggering political paralysis at the federal and state levels on these problems. The institutions that are on the front line and see these problems are trying to do something about it,” said Tom Mortenson, editor and publisher of Postsecondary Education Opportunity  and senior scholar for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education .
“These schools ought to be applauded but it’s a drop in the bucket if just a few institutions do it. The problem is that federal and state policy makers have to wake up and address this affordability issue, and it will not be easy and it will not be cheap.”