In what may be an unprecedented move, Union College is offering a tuition-free final semester to its freshmen, a group that President Marcia Hawkins is determined to present with diplomas in 2016.
Named the "Inaugural Class," this group is the focus of an innovative approach to keeping students enrolled. Hawkins, also a first-year member of the Union College community, developed this strategy in hopes that increased retention and graduation rates will follow.
But the award isn't unconditional. There are certain requirements students must meet, from both inside and outside the classroom. To qualify for a full tuition waiver, students must graduate in four years while maintaining full-time status during all eight semesters; participate in at least one extracurricular activity; attend all "inaugural Class" events; serve at least 75 hours of community service; and maintain a 3.5 grade point average.
"It's all about student success," Hawkins said. "Our mission is tied directly to the levels of achievement our students reach."
A sliding scale will determine the value of the award for qualifying students whose grades fall below the B-plus standard. Students who earn between 3.0 and 3.49 GPAs will have 75 percent of their tuition paid, while students who earn between 2.5 and 2.9 GPAs will have a 50 percent tuition waiver.
New student recruitment numbers at Union College have steadily risen for several years, while retention has continued to suffer. This program is designed to change that trend. "When we can focus as much on student success as on recruiting, then we can truly say we are student-centered," Hawkins said. "If we are truly student-centered, recruiting success will follow."
The four-year deadline for degree completion is a student requirement that also holds Union College accountable. In years past, many students have failed to finish in four years because of scheduling, a problem that must be solved in order for Union to uphold its end of the bargain. For Lorene Putnam, dean of the Edna Jenkins Mann School of Nursing, this timeline is an exciting component of the program.
"The school of nursing has a clear eight-semester plan, and we are working with students and monitoring progress to assure students stay on track to be ready to enter the upper division major in Fall 2014 and graduate in 2016," Putnam said. "This initiative is an added incentive for students to finish in three years."
While Hawkins is prepared to fundraise to cover the waivers, such efforts will most likely be unnecessary. Each student who stays enrolled at Union will help finance the award during his or her first three years, according to Steve Hoskins, vice president for business and financial services. "The unmet need we've promised to pay is basically a deferred merit-based award that will not actually impact our budget until the 2015-16 fiscal year," Hoskins said. "A three-year budge planning process has been our general practice for many years here, so the awarding schedule is already aligned with our current policies."
Hawkins presented the proposal to students during a Christmas gathering before winter break, an event organized, in part, by Union's admissions staff. "The students' expressions and gasps really said it all," said Summer R. Jackson, interim associate dean for undergraduate enrollment, who is also enthusiastic about the Inaugural Class award.
"Our enrollment staff works so hard to get new students to campus," Jackson said, "and I am excited to see the campus working to keep them here."