Gov. Hutchinson announces ArFuture college grant

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 1,878 views 

UAFS professor Brian McLaughlan assists Alma Middle School students during a video game competition Nov. 3. The event was held through the Adopt-a-Professor program, an educational outreach initiative coordinated by the university’s Education Renewal Zone.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the creation of the “Arkansas Future Grant,” or ArFuture, paying two years of tuition and mandatory fees of Arkansas community college and technical students who are studying for high-wage, high-demand fields such as computer science and welding.

The program, which will require legislative action for approval, is meant to increase the state’s post-high school degree attainment level, currently 43%, to the state’s goal of 60% by 2025, Hutchinson said.

“So often students don’t feel like they can get there,” he said. “They don’t feel like they can afford it. Yes, they have a lottery scholarship or yes, they might have access to a Pell grant, but it still doesn’t give them the level of confidence that they can fully afford even the tuition and mandatory fees cost at a two-year college or a technical school. This assures them that that will be covered.”

The $8.2 million program would be available to traditional, home-school, and older non-traditional students who have earned a high school diploma or a GED. It does not have a grade point average requirement. Grants would be available on a first-come, first-serve basis and would be attainable only as a “last dollar grant” after students have exhausted lottery scholarships and Pell grants. Higher education institutions would be required to design mentoring programs for student recipients, a provision Hutchinson said is meant to address problems with other grant programs that have seen low levels of success. Recipients would be required to perform eight hours of community service each semester, which Hutchinson said is meant to broaden their perspective.

They would have to work full-time in Arkansas for a minimum of three years; otherwise, the grant is converted to a loan that must be repaid. That provision is meant to prevent students from accepting scholarship money and then taking their skills to Silicon Valley or elsewhere. It would include provisions if a student is delayed entering the workforce; for example, by choosing to further their education by pursuing a four-year degree.

“The key is that they are not abandoning the state and going elsewhere, and that they are contributing to the economy of this state long-term,” Hutchinson said.

The program would not require new revenues. Instead, it would be funded by canceling two other scholarship programs, the Workforce Improvement Grant and GO! programs that have proven to be not effective enough. The dropout rate for the GO! program is 77%, while the WIG program requires a low grade point average and does not have enough accountability, said Dr. Maria Markham, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

Hutchinson’s previous education initiatives have included a revamp of the state’s funding formula for higher education, an additional $5 million for his school computer science initiative, and an additional $3 million for pre-K education. He said he will discuss a reading initiative later this month.

Hutchinson said the ArFuture initiative is a good fit with his Arkansas Works initiative, which is the successor to the private option, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for lower-income Arkansans. As part of a waiver approved this week by the federal Department of Health and Human Services, beneficiaries will be referred to workforce training opportunities with the Department of Workforce Services. Those beneficiaries can then be informed about the ArFuture Grant.

Hutchinson announced Wednesday that he had been informed by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell that Arkansas had received the waiver for Arkansas Works. On Thursday, he announced that he had received the letter, and his office released it.

Hutchinson said he will discuss his tax cut proposals next week.