Higher education costs are on the rise each year. Americans carry a total of $1.4 trillion in student loan debt which has prompted many states to look at ways to help their residents pursue college degrees without accumulating massive debt. With that in mind, Arkansas followed the lead of states such as Tennessee, Oregon, Minnesota, and Kentucky by creating a program that awards free tuition to community college students studying STEM-based fields or going into high demand fields like welding.

While the state had a similar plan for low-income students over the past decade, it hasn’t had great success. In fact, Arkansas has had dismally low graduation rates for years, leaving legislators trying to find new ways to encourage residents to pursue degrees and, as a result, boost the state’s job market, specifically in categories such as science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).

A new program—called The Arkansas Future Grant—would cover tuition and fees at any of the state's technical or community colleges as well as some associate degree programs at universities. The grant would assist Arkansas high school graduates or those who have been residents for at least three years.

The grant will utilize nearly $9 million that is currently mandated to the state's Higher Education Opportunities and the Workforce Improvement grants with the recipients of those programs being the first in line for the Arkansas Future Grant. Like the majority of state free-college programs and proposals, this is a "last dollar" grant, so students must use federal grants and other state aid first before being eligible for this program.

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Department of Higher Education Director Maria Markham said that the Arkansas Future Grant is specifically designed to help students who are “poor, but not poor enough.” And since the state needs more STEM graduates and people in high-demand fields, the Arkansas Future Grant is focusing on those areas of study in an attempt to build a modern workforce for the state.

Arkansas Future Grant will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis with the 7, 520 Opportunities Grant recipients getting first dibs. They will also have to maintain eligibility requirements. Much like Tennessee’s free tuition program, the Arkansas Future Grant will also have a mentoring and community service requirement, and like Build Dakota in South Dakota, it includes a three-year commitment to stay in that state after graduation.

Image Copyright Josue Mendivil