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New Washington U chancellor unveils free tuition plan for families making $75K or less

By Jacob Kirn  – Economic Development Editor, St. Louis Business Journal 10/3/19

The program is for students from Missouri and southern Illinois students who are eligible for Pell grants or from families with annual incomes of $75,000 or less.

Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin, who was inaugurated Thursday, said the area’s top school would offer free undergraduate education to Missouri and southern Illinois students who are eligible for Pell grants or from families with annual incomes of $75,000 or less.

The so-called WashU Pledge will cover tuition, room, board and fees for accepted first-year students, according to the university, which has an admission rate of 14%. Undergraduate students who are already enrolled and qualify also will benefit, with funding beginning in fall 2020, Martin said. Part-time students and those earning a degree from University College, for working adults, are not eligible.

“We are making this ‘WashU Pledge’ first because it’s the right thing to do,” Martin said in his inauguration address, according to a transcript of the remarks. “In addition, we are Washington University ‘in St. Louis.’ That means we have a unique responsibility to provide opportunity for students in our extended region — to the four corners of Missouri and our neighbors in the southern portion of Illinois. By doing so, we’re attracting our very best and brightest and keeping them right here, close to home.”

Missouri and Illinois counties covered by the WashU Pledge

A Washington University spokeswoman didn’t say how many students the school expects to benefit from the WashU Pledge, calling the number “very difficult to predict.” Washington University, with an endowment of more than $7.6 billion, has a freshman class this year of 1,744, comprised of 46% white, 20% Asian, 11% black and 10% Hispanic students. Another 8% are international students, and 64% of the new students are from more than 500 miles away. Tuition for 2019-2020 is $54,250.

“Especially in this first year, our overriding goal is expanding opportunity by eliminating every financial hurdle for these prospective students and demonstrating that they are not only welcome at WashU, but we enthusiastically hope they will consider joining us,” the spokeswoman, Jill Friedman, said in an email.

Earlier this year, Washington University’s medical school said it would allocate $100 million over the next decade for a new scholarship program that would allow nearly half of its new class to attend tuition-free. The university also pointed to other measures, such as a fund covering academic fees and living expenses incurred during unpaid internships, and a program designed to support Pell grant-eligible and first-generation students through academic and peer mentors.

The moves follow past criticism of the university over how many of its students were eligible for federal Pell grants, which are typically awarded to students in the bottom 40% of the income distribution. Six percent of Washington University students received Pell grants in 2015, lower than at its peer institutions. The university said Thursday that 15% of its incoming class of 2023 is eligible for Pell grants.

For the 2016-2017 school year, Washington University tied for last among U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 schools for the number of undergraduate students awarded Pell grants, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Ten percent of Washington University undergraduate students got Pell grants that school year, compared with 34% for the top school, the University of California-Los Angeles, the data show. The University of Notre Dame also had 10%, and the University of Chicago and Harvard University had 11%.

Washington University’s new program closely mirrors those at other institutions.

The University of Arizona, for example, announced last month that all Pell grant-eligible freshman students from that state would have their full cost of tuition covered. Various Ivy League schools also offer full rides for accepted students whose families make about $65,000 or less.

A 2018 study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy recommended that free college programs, like Washington University’s, fund non-tuition expenses, but also focus “first and foremost” on low-income students.

It’s also important that schools consider what accommodations they’ll make for low-income students in the admissions process, said Kathryn Palmer, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education who’s covered the issue.

“It’s one thing to say you offer these income-based tuition deals, but another to actually get low-income students in the door,” she said.

In his remarks Thursday, Martin, who was named chancellor last year and took on the role this summer, emphasized that Washington University must strengthen its relationship with St. Louis.

“I want to eradicate any kind of perception that St. Louis is merely WashU’s side gig,” Martin said. “Rather, St. Louis should become one of our primary foci as we think through the lens: ‘In St. Louis. For St. Louis.'”

He said that will include capitalizing on “more basic and applied research” that affects neighborhoods dealing with high crime, malnutrition, and environmental and educational concerns.

The university, Martin said, will also begin to offer a variety of courses from its University College to “anyone in St. Louis who wants a WashU education.”

He also emphasized bolstering Washington University’s relationship with BJC HealthCare, and thinking “about how WashU as an employer can do even more.”

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