Funding debated for non-traditional students

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 125 views 

Non-traditional students tend to have higher retention rates and hang on to academic scholarships. Yet they receive the smallest slices of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery pie, a trend that is likely to continue.

“We all agree funding for non-traditionals is money well spent,” said Dr. Suzanne McCray, vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions for the University of Arkansas. “They have a high retention rate and they’re likely to succeed. But we don’t want to take money from incoming high school students.”

McCray said shifting money from freshmen scholarships would just perpetuate the problem: There would be more high school graduates who could not afford to enter college right out of high school, creating additional non-traditional ranks when those students try to return sometimes many years later.

Non-traditional students are defined, at least in terms of the Academic Challenge Scholarship (the lottery scholarship), as students who’ve been out of high school for at least a year. They could be 19-year-old students who simply sat out that year after high school, but they more often are students who have been working, maybe married or had children, or single parents who need to earn a better living for themselves or a family.

Sometimes, they are people who’ve lost their jobs in the bad economy and are looking for new careers. Many of them already have some college hours and want or need to complete a degree but some are entering college for the first time. Regardless of their personal situations, the “non-traditionals” tend to be good students.

An Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE) report examining the 2010-2011 year – the first year of the lottery scholarships – showed that non-traditional students had the highest renewal rates at 73.3%. So while only 26.7% of non-traditional scholarship recipients lost their scholarship, 41.5% of traditional freshmen at Arkansas’ public universities and colleges lost theirs.

The state caps lottery funding at $12 million for non-traditional scholarships. The commitment of non-traditionals to earn a degree has prompted discussion of increasing the percentage of lottery funds allocated to that segment of students.

“We’ve had several people (legislators) express interest and concern that $12 million is not enough,” said Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, co-chairman of the Arkansas Lottery Commission Legislative Oversight Committee.

At the beginning of last summer, some 5,000 non-traditionals were on a waiting list – holdovers from the 2011-2012 applicants who’d applied and been approved for scholarships from a fund that was already used up on students like themselves who began or returned to school in the two years prior and  retained their scholarships. Another 10,000 would-be non-traditional students applied for the 2012-2013 academic year.

Arkansas Department of Higher Education Interim Director Shane Broadway said approximately 2,200 from the waiting list received scholarships for this school year after $97.6 million in lottery proceeds from the 2012 fiscal year were deposited. The proceeds topped the previous year’s proceeds of $94.2 million. Some non-traditionals graduated or left school at the end of last year freeing up some non-traditional slots.
Some of the non-traditionals on the waiting list dropped off and some of the 10,000 new applicants didn’t complete the approval process, he said.

“Some of it is because they know there’s not funding available and some know they’re not going to be eligible and never go to the next step,” Broadway said.

Because funding is limited for non-traditional students, officials created additional criteria to narrow their applicant pool. Priority is given to those who’ve already completed at least 83 hours and have a high grade-point average. Additional weight is given to those majoring in science, technology, engineering or math – fields believed to potentially have the biggest impact on Arkansas.

Legislators will discuss funding changes during the upcoming session, Perry said. “We’ll see if there’s a way to change the funding amount to attract more non-traditional students,” he said.

“Some members of the General Assembly are interested in getting more money allocated to non-traditionals,” Broadway said. “Right now, they’re more interested in the financial stability of the entire program. But many members we visit with who ask us questions are looking at freeing up money for non-traditionals.”

Perry said data shows non-traditionals are worth the investment, even though the only ones who qualify are those who are three-fourths finished with their degree program, he said.

“They’ve got skin in the game,” Perry said. “They may have already paid for some of their college (themselves) and are ready to finish. They have more success and a higher retention rate when they actually have an investment. When you fund a traditional student, they don’t have any skin in the game.”

Additional funding for non-traditional students should come from new money, not taken from freshmen lottery proceeds, McCray said.

“We need to support both groups, without diminishing the funds,” McCray said.

Wendy Stouffer, executive director of academic scholarships and financial aid at the University of Arkansas, said there are some scholarships aimed solely toward non-traditionals.

“The Academic Scholarship Office has a couple of private scholarships targeted at non-traditional applicants, but the majority of our scholarships are open to traditional students as well as non-traditional students,” Stouffer said. “We do have military scholarships and transfer-student scholarships that many times go to non-traditional students because of the nature of the scholarships.”

A list of other non-traditional funding opportunities is available on the Off Campus Connections website. Stouffer said she also advises non-traditional students to do internet searches for outside scholarships for non-traditional students. Other information may be found at this website.

The ADHE touts its Come Back 2 Go Forward program that aims to encourage non-traditionals to return to school. The program website has information on funding and other resources to help non-traditional students.

Another new program by the Northwest Arkansas Council, Graduate NWA, is an effort by the council to help elevate the region’s economic growth by increasing the number of college graduates that live in the region. The program seeks to recruit non-traditionals to go to college or return to complete a degree. The program’s website connects prospective students with an educational liaison to provide them with information on costs, employer tuition assistance programs and tips on juggling work, family and school.