Free College: The Arkansas story

Postsecondary & Workforce

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As of March 14, 2017, 80 “free college” policy proposals have been introduced in 27 states. While the clear majority of these bills never see the governor’s desk- nearly 75 percent of them never even make it past introduction- a small number of states have enacted policies. Arkansas joined this group, along with Oregon, Minnesota, Tennessee and Rhode Island, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed H.B. 1426 into law on March 2. 

Each state that has enacted free college policy to-date has taken a unique approach: Oregon focuses on high school graduates, Minnesota is piloting a program for high-need fields, Tennessee integrates both traditional and adult students, and Rhode Island uses a decentralized model with greater institutional control. Arkansas’ approach adds a new criterion that other enacted programs have not: a work requirement. Recipients must be employed within six months of receiving their associate degree or certificate, and must remain in the state for a minimum of three years, except under special circumstances.

Education Commission of the States staff asked Maria Markham, Director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE), to share the details of the new program, ArFuture, with readers of the EdNote blog. Below, she shares the message that the Arkansas Future Grant (ArFuture) intends to spread across the state- that college is within reach for all Arkansans. Specifically, Markham was asked to share the details of how the program is designed, how it is funded and why the program is an important step for the state of Arkansas.

Details of Program Design

ArFuture bears similarities to the Tennessee Promise, which integrates community service and mentorship programs to the eligibility criteria. We also looked to Build South Dakota’s focus on high demand fields and post-graduate work requirements. ArFuture is designed to be a last dollar scholarship available for any Arkansan to attend a public institution of higher learning to earn a high demand certificate or associate degree.

Funding the Program

The program will kick off fall 2017 and institutions will soon begin to prepare for the planned boom of interested students. Roughly $9 million has been allocated to student scholarships as a part of ArFuture. ADHE projects that this amount will be sufficient for the first year and hopeful that the program’s success will demand more funding in subsequent years.

Why ArFuture Is Important for Arkansas

Upon signing the bill, Gov. Hutchinson stated, “The ArFuture Grant is changing the culture of post-secondary education in Arkansas by increasing accessibility and removing the financial hurdles that can keep students from taking the next step in their education. ArFuture makes higher education more affordable and attainable for Arkansas students at no additional cost to taxpayers. This bill will help us meet the needs of our state’s rapidly growing workforce, while also indicating to employers that Arkansas is committed to fostering an environment that supports economic growth and creates high-quality jobs.” Other states with similar programs have seen dramatic increases in college going rates as well as improved retention and completion.  More than anything, ArFuture creates an opportunity to inform Arkansans that college is within reach for everyone; regardless of age, previous academic history or income level. 


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