SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake Community College leaders announced Thursday they are hoping to cover tuition and fees for thousands of Utah residents through a new program.
The goal of the program, called SLCC Promise, is to extend college offerings to more Utah residents who want to get a degree but may not see a financial path forward, according to SLCC President Deneece Huftalin.
"We believe in the power of education, and we are excited to give even more students a chance to realize their dreams," Huftalin said. "Our goal is to make higher education affordable for all students and members of the community."
Starting in the 2016-17 academic year, the college will begin waiving tuition and fees for resident students with a full academic workload and significant financial needs.
To qualify for the program, applicants must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and be awarded a Pell Grant. They are required to take a full course load of 12 to 18 credit hours and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. Those students must also meet with an adviser to develop a two-year degree plan.
The assistance is open to new students and continuing education students with less than 90 attempted credit hours, and it can be used in any of the college's academic programs.
For those students, the college will cover the cost of tuition and fees when federal grants fall short. College leaders say the program combines new management practices, student aid, scholarship money and institutional resources to provide the assistance.
It's estimated the program could help between 400 and 500 students this year, though there isn't a cap on participation.
"We're truly excited," Huftalin said.
More than half of the 29,000 students attending SLCC are first-generation college students. Among them is Chandra Carlson, who will complete her general education courses this spring and transfer to Utah State University.
While she won't take part in the SLCC Promise program, Carlson said she's still excited for those who could benefit from the monetary help and, like her, are the first in their family to go to college.
"I think it's a great opportunity for students," Carlson said. "I think it's going to open a lot for people that kind of consider going to college but didn't know how they were going to do it. I think this is going to be that next step and a welcoming hand."
Huftalin said the program will not require an additional appropriation in state funds, but it will be possible from a reallocation of internal resources. Much of that will include diverting merit-based scholarships to the SLCC Promise program to be awarded based on financial need, though the college will seek to backfill those merit-based awards.
Currently, about 9,100 students at the college receive federal assistance from Pell Grants, according to Charles Lepper, vice president for student affairs. But that doesn't necessarily include everyone eligible for financial aid.
Utah has historically ranked lowest in the country for the portion of students who qualify for federal financial aid but don't apply for it. In 2013, Utah students left unclaimed about $45.5 million that could have been used to defer college costs, according to a 2015 NerdWallet Study.
Since student aid depends on whether they apply, it's unclear exactly how many students will use the SLCC Promise program in future years. But Huftalin said college leaders will continue looking for ways to be flexible and innovative if more needs arise.
"We'll just continue to navigate it because we think ultimately it's a really good commitment to make," she said. "If we have to shift fundraising to it to accommodate it, we can do that."
The program is an adjustment for the college, but it will likely also be an adjustment for its students. Last year, only 27 percent of students at SLCC attended full time, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. Many of them work while attending school.
But requiring students in the SLCC Promise program to take a full course load will encourage commitment from students and better ensure their academic success, Huftalin said.
"That's an important adjustment and that's a good adjustment for them to make because they'll get finished faster, they'll actually spend less money and time, and they'll move on to their goals," she said. "It's a little bit of a culture change for our students. That'll take a while."
Other higher education leaders see the new program as an example of innovative adjustments that will be needed at Utah's eight public colleges and universities.
Those institutions last year enrolled almost 171,000 students, and they're projected to gain another 50,000 students in the next 10 years. Keeping up with that influx will require new strategies that accommodate a larger and more diverse student body, according to France Davis, vice chairman of the Utah State Board of Regents.
"As we wait for them, we believe that we have to put in place those kinds of opportunities, like (SLCC) Promise, that will allow students to not only come to school, but be able to finish," Davis said.