Private Kentucky college makes tuition-free offer

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Associated Press

Posted on January 22, 2013 at 8:01 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A small Appalachian college is dangling an appealing offer in front of its freshmen: Get good grades and volunteer and you can skip paying tuition your final semester as a senior.

Union College President Marcia Hawkins sees the offer as a way to boost student retention and graduation rates at the private liberal arts school in Barbourville in southeastern Kentucky. It amounts to about $10,500 in savings based on current tuition rates.

Slightly more than 55 percent of its freshmen generally return to campus as sophomores and only 14 percent graduate within four years, the school says. Nearly a third of its students graduate within six years.

The offer is aimed at putting more emphasis on spring graduation rates than fall enrollment numbers, said Hawkins, who is in her first full year at the nearly 1,400-student school affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

"We talk so much about ... getting that (freshman) class in," Hawkins said in a recent phone interview. "You hear that conversation on every campus: are we going to make the fall numbers? Obviously that's extremely important. But I want to turn the conversation on our campus more to — how do we get the students out in their fourth year. It's really more about that than getting them in."

She hopes the tuition-free offer is the perfect inducement. But it comes with conditions.

To qualify for the full tuition waiver, students must graduate in four years, maintain a 3.5 grade point average, participate in at least one extracurricular activity and volunteer at least 75 hours of community service.

"It's not just to finish in four years, but to get the most out of their experience here," Hawkins said.

Students with less-sterling grades can qualify for lower amounts of waivers. Students with GPAs of 3.0 to 3.49 can have three-fourths of their tuition paid. Students with GPAs between 2.5 and 2.9 can have a waiver for half of their final semester tuition bill.

Union freshman Donovan Spann said he's excited at the prospect of shaving thousands of dollars off his college expenses.

"It's going to save a lot of money come the end of my term here," said Spann, a computer information technology major from Flemingsburg in northern Kentucky. "As long as I keep my head in the right direction, I should be able to pull that out."

Spann said that "some jaws dropped" when freshmen learned of the offer, though some students later sounded skeptical about maintaining a minimum 3.5 GPA for three and a half years to qualify for the full waiver.

"If you're in college for the right reason, you shouldn't have a problem with it," he said.

On average, students attending Kentucky universities and colleges pile up more than $22,000 in loan debt, said Ted Franzeim, a vice president with the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers the state's student aid programs.

He applauded Union College's offer to ease debt loads and encourage graduation within four years.

"I think anything that a college can do to make college more affordable is great," he said. "This has a lot of positive incentives for students to make it more affordable and to give something back" to the campus and community.

Hawkins said she doesn't expect the waiver to cause a revenue shortfall for Union when the offer kicks in. She hopes that higher student retention in the next three years will more than offset revenue losses when the current freshman class cashes in on the offer.

Also, Union won't spike its tuition even higher as a hedge to make up for any lost revenue, she said. The school's tuition rates have gone up 5 percent a year on average in the past three years.

If the tuition-free offer does cause a revenue crunch, Hawkins said, she's willing to approach Union's contributors to make up the loss.

The school's tuition offer doesn't apply to housing or other college expenses. And it only applies to the current freshman class.

"If we at this point did the same with sophomores, juniors and seniors, the CFO would probably have a heart attack," Hawkins said.

Hawkins said she hopes to continue the tuition-free offer for future students, but campus leaders will have to assess how it's working.

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