The University of Memphis is launching the Access Memphis initiative to make secondary education more affordable to students from households that earn under $50,000 per year.
For the fall semester of 2018, 25 percent of the first-time freshmen class, or 620 students, came from households with an income of $50,000 or less. These students are eligible for the HOPE scholarship, which are provided by proceeds from the state lottery to students who meet academic requirements – minimum 21 ACT or 1060 SAT and a minimum 3.0 GPA.
More than 50 percent of first-time freshmen at the University of Memphis are also eligible for Pell grants, a subsidy the U.S. federal government for students whose families meet a $50,000 income threshold.
The combination of state, federal and university aid meets the financial need of many students.
“Eighty-six percent of students don’t have to pay out of pocket for tuition,” said Tom Nenon, executive vice president and provost for the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Memphis.
But other students are still being left behind. Rising costs place limits on access to a college education. Aspiring students, particularly from lower-income households, have to weigh the benefits of a degree and debt versus entering the workforce.
U of M’s goal is to fully cover all tuition and fees for qualifying students, from households with an income threshold of $50,000 or less, by fall 2021. About sixty percent of households in Memphis fall under the $50,000 median income threshold.
The university is working to accomplish this goal with several strategies that include the Access Memphis initiative, keeping tuition increases to a minimum and providing on-campus employment opportunities.
New initiatives under the Access Memphis umbrella launching in the fall include: a guaranteed tuition plan that assures all first-time, full-time freshmen lock in the fall 2019 tuition rate for eight consecutive regular semesters; a uniform tuition rate so whether students are taking on-ground/in-person or online classes, they will pay the same tuition rate; and a tuition cap for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Through this cap, resident undergraduate students will only have to pay for 12 credit hours. If they take more, those credit hours are free. The same is true for resident graduate students, who will only have to pay for ten credit hours.
By treating online and on-ground courses the same in regards to the tuition rate, the university believes it will allow students, without any extra financial burden, to take 15 or 18 hours and finish their degree as quickly as possible.
To help control costs for students, the administration has also sought out efficiencies to deal with year-over-year operating increases rather than raising tuition.
“For a long time we were solving our budget problems simply through raising tuition, and we can’t do that if our students are going to be successful,” said Nenon.
In the five years since university president Dr. M. David Rudd announced his intention to keeps tuition costs down, the university has had the lowest tuition and fee increases in Tennessee.
Its tuition and fees have risen at 11.9 percent over a five-year period. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s tuition and fees have gone up by 29.3 percent; East Tennessee State University’s by 23 percent; and Middle Tennessee State University’s increased 17.4 percent. The state’s community colleges averaged a 17.3 percent increase.
“We have the lowest tuition increases of any public institution — and probably any institution at all — in the state of Tennessee and among the lowest in the country. The only real raise we’ve had in the last year, we increased tuition to cover the state mandated raises for employees,” said Nenon.
The school is also trying wrangle runaway textbook prices. For students taking a full course load, books can run upwards of $800 per semester.
“Textbooks have gotten pretty expensive, so we are going to be working with Follet [a textbook distributor]. We are looking at the most reasonably priced options for those textbooks, whether it is rental or a digital version. We are going to try and bundle that together and come up with a per credit hour amount that our freshman would pay,” said Nenon.
The goal is to lower book costs to around $450 per semester for a student taking a 15-hour course load.
Even with the help of aid, grants and innovations, many students still have to work. The grind of juggling school and work commitments can often hinder a student’s ability to obtain their degree.
Two years ago, the University of Memphis created a company, UMRF Ventures Inc., to provide livable wage jobs to students in fields related to their study. The company is providing jobs so working students can afford to stay in school. They pay a minimum of $15 per hour.
“Finances is one of the biggest reasons why they don’t finish college. The reason we are doing this is so the students don’t get into debt, or finances don’t stand in the way of them finishing,” said Dr. Jasbir Dhaliwal, executive vice president for Research and Innovation at the University of Memphis.
The white-collar jobs include running call centers, performing data analytics work, IT and cybersecurity for FedEx Corp. For example, a FedEx employee in Florida can call the center to have a student help them set up a new work laptop. The data analysis team, meanwhile, analyzes real-time network issues for FedEx to see where the bottlenecks are or whether a server is being overloaded. In addition, Memphis Symphony Orchestra uses the call center to make calls during fundraising season or to purchase tickets.
“These are very meaningful jobs. In this work, the students get professionalized. By the time they graduate, not only have they earned a degree, they have been doing FedEx work for three to four years. They are literally ready for a FedEx or other large corporations,” said Dhaliwal.
The UMRF Ventures Inc. program won a national innovation award last fall – the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) 2018 Excellence and Innovation Award for Regional and Economic Development.
“That’s kind of an innovative way of saying ‘all these students who come from really poor family backgrounds’ — basically saying ‘look, these students are very capable if during their years on campus, you are actually professionalizing them by giving them meaningful work that pays them well,’” said Dhaliwal.
There are about 200 students employed by UMRF Ventures, who work at various locations associated with the campus, including the FedEx Institute of Technology.
The newly-launched Communitech Research Park also provides employment opportunities. Companies that join the park are eligible to hire students.
“This way our students finish on time. They aren’t bussing tables and doing something that has zero value to their careers down the road,” said Dhaliwal.
KIM AND JIM COLEMAN