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Freshmen beginning next fall will be able to lock in tuition at the same rate for four years of study at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the university announced Tuesday.

While rare in Arkansas, tuition guarantees or fixed-rate tuition plans have caught on elsewhere.

The plans, as promoted in states including Texas, help families prepare for college expenses, said Jennifer Delaney, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois. But they vary widely in participation and sometimes do not result in savings for students, she said.

At UA-Fort Smith, only first-time, full-time students may enroll in what's being called the UAFS Promise, with no way for current students or transfer students to participate.

The benefit is not only in financial planning, said Edward Serna, the university's interim chancellor. The program requires students to follow their degree plans and stay on track to graduate.

Serna said he expects the UAFS Promise to help improve the university's four-year graduation rate, which was 19.5 percent, according to a December report from the state Department of Higher Education.

Among public universities in the state, only the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, with a four-year graduation rate of 10.5 percent, had a lower rate.

Serna said UA-Fort Smith is making an effort "to make sure we do everything we can to get students across that gate in four years," adding that he sees the potential for boosting that graduation rate as "a big draw" in adopting the policy.

The 2019-20 tuition rate has not been set, but university spokesman John Post said that it will be the same for all students, whether they choose to opt into the UAFS Promise or pay tuition that could go up from year to year.

UA-Fort Smith -- which last fall announced it had enrolled 6,637 students, including 18 graduate students -- is charging $166.30 per semester credit hour in 2018-19 to in-state, undergraduate students and those residing in Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas.

For a typical schedule of 30 hours, this adds up to yearly tuition of $4,989, according to the university. Mandatory fees are an additional $2,138.50 for a typical schedule, and they may go up even for students participating in the UAFS Promise.

Post said the UAFS Promise program allows students from other states to participate. Out-of-state students not from border states have an annual tuition rate of $13,830 in 2018-19, according to the university.

Nate Hinkel, a spokesman for the University of Arkansas System, said the online-only eVersity is the only other UA System entity to offer "a tuition lock."

No other institution is offering a fixed-rate tuition plan, said Alisha Lewis, associate director of communications for the state Department of Higher Education.

"I applaud UAFS's effort to not only control students' cost of attendance but also strengthening the incentive to stay in college," Maria Markham, director of the state Department of Higher Education, said in a statement.

In 2000, Ouachita Baptist University began what it called a "guaranteed fixed-cost plan," but the school's website no longer refers to such a plan.

Delaney said state laws in Illinois require fixed-rate tuition plans, and they must be provided as an option in a few other states, including Texas.

She said that depending on the structure of the plans, they can be viewed as placing a greater financial burden on students who take longer than four years to finish their degrees.

"Students can be caught in a bind if they take longer than four years to finish. You're suddenly facing a price jump," Delaney said.

Serna said the UAFS Promise program has "flexibility" built into it, including an appeals process.

"Our underlying goal here is to graduate students, so I don't want to be so rule-bound and so strict that we lose sight of that," Serna said.

Delaney said such programs range widely in popularity among students and their families, noting that a program in Oklahoma -- which, unlike the UAFS program, requires students to pay an upfront surcharge on top of the typical tuition rate -- has low participation.

The University of Kansas this year stopped offering what it called a "tuition compact," citing a declining percentage of students choosing to opt into the program. At Kansas, students chose between a higher-but-locked-in tuition rate or a lower tuition rate that might increase year-to-year.

Delaney said institutions also must figure out how to plan their own budgets.

Serna said the university will use the UAFS Promise in its recruiting pitch to students and that the "compelling recruiting tool" should help draw a larger incoming class.

In addition, "we'll actually be able to increase our retention across the institution," Serna said, adding that having more students staying in school and paying tuition would help the university "on the back end" recover any costs from the program.

A Section on 09/05/2018

Print Headline: UAFS unveils plan to offer fixed-rate tuition starting in fall '19

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