Paid in full
University unveils rebranding of tuition-free program
According to the website debt.org, student loan debt “soared from $260 billion in 2004 to $1.4 trillion in 2017.” And average debt rose from $18,650 to $38,000 over that same period. Additionally, the number of people over $60,000 in loan debt “has quadrupled in the last decade from 700,000 to 2.8 million” people. But at the University of Nevada, Reno, officials are working to change the narrative about student loan debt—at least on a local level.
On Thursday Dec. 5, UNR officials held a press conference to unveil the rebranding of a free tuition program they’re now calling the Nevada Guarantee—a program that completely covers tuition, books and fees for those who qualify for it.
“The most important thing to start off with is to talk about the Nevada Guarantee and how you qualify,” said Director of Admissions Steve Maples during the press conference. “It’s pretty straightforward, as far as the qualifications. If you have a family income of $50,000 or less, and if you’re a Nevada resident, and as long as you apply to the university by February 1 … you’ll qualify for the Nevada Guarantee. It’s the only program in the state of Nevada that allows you to start at the university and complete your degree at the university and have your books, your fees and your tuition covered—all in four years or less.”
The program has actually been around for about a decade now and was formally called Pack Advantage. In that time, more than 10,000 UNR students have participated in it.
“So why are we telling you about this now?” said Melisa Choroszy, associate vice president of university enrollment services. “We’re a land-grant university, and our mission is to support student access—and we want to make sure that Nevada residents have access to a quality, tier-one education. … We want students to know that they are welcome here, and we’re here to support them.”
The other goal of the press conference was to provide the university an opportunity to make the argument that it’s not such a big part of the student loan debt crisis people so often hear about in media reports these days.
“You will see in the reports, as we have, about students graduating with record amounts of debt from college,” Choroszy said. “We want to share some information with you about our students. Over 50 percent of our students graduate without debt, debt free. Eighty-one percent of our students receive some kind of scholarship and financial aid. We give out over $87 million dollars [annually] in financial aid to our students.”
Two of those students who’ve graduated debt-free from the university were on hand to share their experiences during the press conference—Perla Gonzalez Roman and Martha Aguilar.
“Before I knew about the Nevada Guarantee, I was attending TMCC and paying out-of-pocket for the two classes [per semester] that I could afford while I was working for the Washoe County School District as a lunch lady,” said Gonzalez Roman. “After three years at TMCC, I transferred to the university where I continued to pay for the two classes a semester, as that was what I could afford.”
She also started working at North Valleys High School as a career center facilitator, where she met a UNR admissions counselor who told her about the Nevada Guarantee, but, at first, thought she was ineligible because of her citizenship status. Gonzalez Roman is a DACA recipient. She was pleased to learn that UNR offered the program to students like her, too, by having an alternative to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), for which non-citizens do not qualify.
“Once I got the Nevada Guarantee, I immediately enrolled in a full course load of classes—and I was so thrilled that I could do so and that I would be able to graduate in two years,” she said. “I made sure that my two younger siblings knew about the program and enrolled when their time came. This program is truly life-changing.”
Gonzalez Roman graduated during 2019 winter commencement with a degree in human development and family studies and is starting a graduate program at the University of Denver. The other student at the press conference, Aguilar, graduated with two bachelor’s degrees—one in elementary education and the other in human development and family studies. She also recently interviewed to get into the pool of certified teachers in the Washoe County School District.
“Now, I look forward to teaching and inspiring other students like me,” she said.
By the numbers
The Nevada Guarantee program is funded through federal, state, institutional and private gift foundation dollars. In addition to meeting the income requirements, students who enroll in the program must remain in good academic standing with the university by maintaining at least a 2.0 grade point average. The university estimates that around 30 percent of applying freshmen at the university qualify the Nevada Guarantee. But who are the 50 percent of students the university says graduate debt free?
According to report from the university analyzing undergraduate students who started at the University of Nevada, Reno, as first-time students and graduated debt-free in 2019, this varies by both major and student demographics.
According to the report, liberal arts students were the most likely to graduate debt-free, at 61 percent. Interdisciplinary students were the least likely to leave the university without debt, at just 35 percent. Other degrees fields where at least 50 percent of students graduated without debt include engineering, agriculture, business, science and social work.
As for demographics, white students were the most like to graduate debt free, at 56 percent—versus forty-one percent of Hispanic students, 47 percent of Pacific Islanders, 33 percent of Native American and Alaskan students, and just 24 percent of black students. The university is hoping that the rebranding and promotion of the program can boost these numbers.
“Getting out the word is always a challenge, and we’re hoping that this will help raise awareness,” said Choroszy.