A brief, national spotlight on Union College has brought an unexpected amount of attention to the small liberal arts school and has boosted its president to near-celebrity status.
It started with a simple, yet creative, way to attack a common problem. From there, a nationwide buzz erupted, resulting in more earned news coverage than Union has encountered in recent history. Here's how it unfolded.
"Inside Higher Ed," an online news source for all of higher education, published a story in mid-January about Union's offer to this year's freshmen for a free last semester. As a strategy to increase the college's retention rate, President Marcia Hawkins developed the plan and then announced the opportunity to students and their parents in late December. The "Inside Higher Ed" story outlined the details, which sparked the interest of an Associated Press reporter. The AP story was widely circulated and inspired viral messages woven throughout Twitter and other social media platforms.
"This has all developed quite unexpectedly," said Hawkins, referencing the gained attention in the news. "My goal was to hand each student a diploma in four years, while encouraging them to be productive, civic-minded citizens. I never dreamed this would generate such attention."
Hawkins told the story many times after the "Inside Higher Ed" story appeared: Students who qualify for a full tuition waiver for their final semester must have a 3.5 or better grade point average, compete 75 hours of community service, be involved in at least one extra-curricular activity an complete a degree in four years. A sliding scale is in place to cover tuition percentages for students who perform below a 3.5 GPA. If the plan proves successful, she wants to offer similar incentives to future freshman classes.
In each interview though, Hawkins was quick to add that providing a tuition-free semester for qualifying freshman will not set the college back financially. This is thanks, in part to the increase in revenue that will result from the increase in retention. Also helping alleviate the financial burden are two important factors: Union has a lower than average tuition rate among private colleges, and 65 percent of its students are Pell eligible. All things considered, Hawkins is almost positive the incentive will pay for itself. Should the costs not be covered, she is prepared to fundraise to meet the unmet needs.