University of Utah announces $2.5 million scholarship fund to help low-income students go to school for free

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granger High Student Body President Grace Amematsro talks about her college plans after a news conference at which the University of Utah announced a new scholarship and tuition program at Granger High School, Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019.

Grace Amematsro wasn’t planning to apply for college this fall.

Instead, the senior at Granger High in West Valley City thought she’d take some time off to work, maybe waitress for a while or get a job answering calls at the credit card company near her house.

Just until she could save up enough money to pay for tuition. No more than a year off. Two years tops. Then she’d go back to school and get a degree in political science, like she’s dreamed of since she was a little girl.

“I’ve been so worried about the finances,” she said. “My family doesn’t have a lot of money. And I just don’t know what else to do.”

On Thursday, she learned about a new option.

Amematsro was one of nearly 100 students invited to hear the University of Utah launch a scholarship to help those, like her, with families who are low-income or just can’t afford school. The program combines federal and state funds to fully pay for four years of tuition and fees at the U. It’s called the For Utah Scholarship.

And she’s eligible.

“We want to make sure that cost is not a barrier to coming to the University of Utah,” said school President Ruth Watkins. “This is an opportunity for everyone to come to the U. — no matter their socioeconomic background.”

It’s the first concerted push at the flagship research university to broadly assist students with financial need. The scholarship would cover costs for those who meet four requirements: having a 3.2 GPA or higher, being a Utah resident, starting school as a freshman at the U. and qualifying through federal financial aid forms for any amount in Pell Grants (subsidies for low-income students, generally whose families make $50,000 a year or less).

About 1,100 freshmen who go there each year will be eligible for a cut of the money.

The funding, overall, is bit of three-step dance. For the first two years, eligible students would use their awarded grant money and funding from the state under the separate Promise Scholarship approved by the Legislature this past session. That program is also for students with financial need and meant to help them get started at a public state school.

Then, the U. would step in to pay for years three and four.

The hope is that students finish a degree by then. The pledge is that, if they do, it will be free.

“The state gets them in the door,” said Melanie Heath, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education. “And then the University of Utah is getting them to complete. It’s a cool partnership.”

No application is necessary for the program; students are automatically considered when they apply to the U. The university is putting $2.5 million annually behind the push and believes that will cover everything for everyone who is eligible.

Amematsro grinned from her chair in the front of the room and grabbed a pennant with the university’s logo on her way out. Now, she hopes to go to the school next year. “I’m going to apply,” she said.

Getting students to finish their degrees has been a large initiative for Watkins, who focused on it during her inauguration speech last year. The university has a 6-year graduation rate of 70% percent.

That means roughly 30% of students who start at the U. don’t complete in that timeframe. Watkins hopes the For Utah Scholarship will change that.

“The huge benefits of college come with the completion of the degree,” she said, noting that while the hope is to finish in four years, those who get the scholarship and don’t won’t be penalized — but they’d have to cover additional years by other means.

Weber State University and Salt Lake Community College in Utah already have similar programs. And Snow College also announced a matching initiative Thursday with $5 million.

Watkins made her announcement Thursday at Granger High School — the largest of about 50 high schools in the state with more than 3,000 students. Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates said at least 200 seniors there will qualify for the scholarship. “It has the opportunity to change their lives,” he added.

In front of him, students snapped photos and posed next to the rows of yearbooks and the giant knight statute representing their school mascot, the lancer. Administrators walked around the room, encouraging them to apply to college.

Granger High is a Title I school, which means it receives federal funding for having a large concentration of students from low-income backgrounds.

Akilah Pham, a student there, said she’ll be the first person in her family to go to college, and now she’s leaning toward going to the U. based on the assistance. “When I’ve thought about college it’s always been about how I’d pay for it,” the 17-year-old said.

Steven Maldonavo, who was raised in Mexico, nodded as Pham explained. The senior lives with his grandmother and aunt and said when he goes to school, he’ll have to pay for it. He originally had applied to Snow College because the U. has the most expensive tuition of any public university in Utah, falling at roughly $4,000 per semester. Now, he said, he plans to apply there, too, because of the scholarship.

Like Amematsro, it’s where he wanted to go, but didn’t think he could afford it.