Friday, March 17, 2017

TOP STORY >> More students get tuition breaks

Leader senior staff writer

Two new laws make it easier and cheaper for Arkansas Guardsmen and some other Arkansas residents to attend state-supported college, community college or trade school if otherwise qualified.

Newly passed Act 316 — “The Arkansas Future Grant” — will provide two years of tuition-free education to students to attend state-supported institution of higher education in high-demand science and technology-related fields and some specialty fields, such as welding and nursing.

Tuition will be waived for eligible students working toward certification or an associate’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, including computer science in those high demand fields.

The other law, Act 471, addresses the state’s disadvantage in recruiting National Guardsmen compared to neighboring states, which waive tuition for their guardsmen, according to Arkansas National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Joel Lynch.

Arkansas, alone among contiguous states, is having trouble with personnel retention, he said.

“We want to provide for a college education for our young Arkansans, but this will also serve as a recruiting tool for our Army and Air National Guard units around the state,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday. “This investment in education for those who serve our country is small compared to the tremendous long-term benefits it will have for the state of Arkansas.”


The Arkansas Future Grant Program pays two years of tuition to attend a two-year or four-year state-supported college or university, a state-supported technical institute or an approved state-supported school of nursing with its primary headquarters located in the state that prepares students as registered nurses and meets other criteria, according to the bill.

To be eligible, a student would be an Arkansas resident who has graduated from an Arkansas public, private or home school or has a GED or who graduated out of state and has resided in the state for three years immediately preceding application. Also eligible is a student already enrolled at an approved higher-education institution in a program leading to an associate degree or a certification in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, including computer science or a regional high-demand field and has submitted applications for federal student aid or similar aid.


A student may continue until receiving the grant for five academic semesters, obtaining an associate degree or failing to make satisfactory academic progress.

There are also mentoring and community service requirements. Fifteen hours of community service must be completed each semester.

The grant will be paid directly to the approved institution.

The tuition recipient, upon graduation or certification, must begin working within six months and work in that field in Arkansas for three years.

The new grant replaces the Arkansas Workforce Improvement Grant.


By limiting participation under both laws to state funded or partially state funded institutions, it seems to ignore private institutions such as Harding University, Hendrix and Lyon, some historically black schools, such as Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist College and private trade schools such as the Arkansas Welding Academy in Jacksonville.

It may be particularly convenient and helpful to students who attend the Jacksonville-Little Rock Air Force Base Joint Education Center at Vandenberg Boulevard and John Harden Road, according to Nancy Shefflette, director of the ASU-Beebe branch at LRAFB.

“A full-tuition waiver would probably encourage more enrollment,” she said. “The tuition held could tip the scales for some of those students to get back in the game. I think we will see a bit of a bump.”


The Arkansas National Guard is already fielding calls—including some from out of state—from would-be soldiers and airmen attracted by a new law that waives tuition at state supported institutions of higher learning, according to Lynch, the Guard’s spokesman.

He said the state’s National Guard has the lowest retention rate in the region.

Most have recruited with better education incentives, until now, Lynch said. “Our retention now is about 90 percent. We’ve had the largest manpower loss among neighboring states.”

While Arkansas lost about 12 percent since 2005, Mississippi has gained 15 percent.

The state has lost several armories and lost out on a cyber battalion for lack of personnel, he said.


Among the rationale cited in the bill, the state lost a cavalry squadron to Pennsylvania and a transportation company to Missouri and repurposed Guard facilities in Berryville, Blytheville, Brinkley, Crossett, Magnolia, Monticello, Rector, Wynne and Helena-west Helena, resulting in loss of $33.9 million to local economies and a loss of $37.2 million to the state’s economy.

“People will look at the Guard now who may not have been considering the military,” according to Lynch. But now with an opportunity get their tuition waived, it may be a more attractive option to enlist or reenlist.

The Arkansas National Guard is authorized for 7,000 soldiers and 2,000 airmen he said.

The Army and Air Guard recruit differently, Lynch said. All Air Guardsmen are assigned to the 188th National Guard Unit at Ft. Smith or to the 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base.


While the numbers are currently depressed, Lynch said the Guard was ready to meet any weather or similar emergency affecting Arkansas residents.

The Act allows a Guard members to attend a state-supported institution of higher education tuition-free if they are an Arkansas resident, has completed initial active- duty training, is in good standing with the Guard, has been accepted to and is enrolled in a state-supported institution of higher education, has applied for federal and state grants and scholarships for which they are eligible and is enrolled in a program leading to an undergraduate degree.

The state will pay tuition at the state schools for up to 120 hours toward an undergraduate degree.

Payments for the tuition-free benefit will be made directly to the institution.

Earlier in the legislative session, the governor signed a bill exempting military retirees—including the National Guard—from state income tax on their military benefits.