Hendrix sees affordability program as Arkansas recruiting tool

This story was originally published on Dec. 9, 2014, in the Log Cabin Democrat

By Brandon Riddle

Joining some of the top private higher education institutions in the U.S., Hendrix College has launched a program to meet 100 percent of the financial need of Arkansas students, starting with freshmen entering in fall 2015.

A first for an institution in Arkansas and one of few in the south to offer such a program, Hendrix hopes the financial aid assistance will be a recruiting tool for prospective Arkansas students.

Bill Tsutsui, president of Hendrix, said the program began with an evaluation of how the college can stay true to the “spirit of the school” when establishing a form of increased affordability.

“More and more, like at so many colleges around the country, increasingly we’re seeing kids from the suburbs and kids with significant financial needs going to college here,” he said.

Central to the program’s mission is the belief that prospective Arkansas high school students shouldn’t be afraid to consider Hendrix as their institution of choice during their college application process.

“I’m just hopeful that this will give Arkansas families another option,” he said. “Hendrix might not be right for everybody, but you don’t want to write it off without giving it a chance.”

Connecting more with the college’s Arkansas roots is part of ongoing Hendrix branding strategy discussions.

“As Hendrix rose to become a national institution, perhaps that relationship got a little more strained,” Tsutsui said. “We still are a national institution. We still are going to be recruiting people from around the country and around the world, but we want to be sure that we serve our backyard as we have for over 100 years.”

Financial need will be addressed through merit scholarships, need-based grants, federal and state grants, federal student loans and student employment.

The Hendrix Arkansas Advantage requires a 3.6 high school GPA and an ACT score of 27 or an SAT score of at least 1200, excluding writing.

To participate in Hendrix’s program, Karen Foust, vice president for enrollment, said prospective freshmen must complete three application steps – admission, federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and state aid through the Arkansas Department of Higher Education’s YOUniversal Financial Aid System.

Kristina Burford, director of financial aid, said the FAFSA will determine the expected family contribution in fulfilling the financial needs of students.

“There is not a limitation to the family contribution,” she said. “It is going to be just if the student demonstrates financial need.”

Before this program, about 85 percent of financial need was addressed for all Hendrix students.

“The difference with what the Advantage program is going to bring is that, if there has been a gap between what we offered in terms of financial aid and the demonstrated need, then that’s when the institution is going to meet that difference,” Foust said.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, the statewide average for students with debt is 55 percent. Average student debt in Arkansas is $25,375, based on the data that includes public and private four-year institutions.

In comparison, 43 percent of 2014 Hendrix students graduated with an average debt of $22,658, according to the college’s Office of Financial Aid website.

This fall, 1,358 students were enrolled at Hendrix, with 338 of those being freshmen. That total number is a 5 percent decline from fall 2013 when 1,432 total students were enrolled.

Sixty-six private institutions and three public schools across the nation, according to the College Board, meet 100 percent of financial need.

The Hendrix program, Tsutsui said, is another step in the “social escalator” to build the college and Arkansas up, placing higher education values as a priority while chipping away at negative statistics about state graduate rates.

“I feel the institutions in the state really need to be creative in finding ways to bring education within the reach of all Arkansas families,” he said. “Obviously, in the big picture, this Hendrix initiative is a small step but my sense is that the independent colleges in the state understand that – they understand how hard families are having to work right now and hopefully we’ll see more programs like this in the future.”

Rex Nelson, president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities (AICU), said Hendrix’s program helps remove the notion that a private education is out of reach.

AICU represents 11 private accredited schools in Arkansas, including Hendrix College and Central Baptist College.

“Perception is really not reality,” he said. “One of the things that you have to understand is that at the private schools, a far higher percentage get a degree within four years which is better than stretching out an education over a number of years.”

Nelson noted the “tremendous impact” that the Hendrix Arkansas Advantage program will have starting next fall.

“Anything our colleges and universities can do to encourage the best and brightest is only going to be a positive,” he said.

Referencing the 2010 U.S. Census, Nelson pointed to Arkansas’ place as next to last in percentage of graduates with a bachelor’s degree.

“One reason I took this job, is that I felt that changing the stat of low college degree holders is the most important public policy issue facing higher education,” Nelson said.

He is also the father of a current Hendrix student, senior Austin Nelson.

Tsutsui said the financial implications of the Hendrix Arkansas Advantage program were significant to consider during the development process.

“This is not going to be a cheap proposition for the college but it’s an important one, so we wanted to run the numbers,” he said.

Tsutsui said he would welcome any donor who could help make expanding the program to more than state students an option for Hendrix financially.

“I would really love to be able to extend the program to all kids around the country and around the world with talent and give them the opportunity to come to Hendrix but, as it worked out, what we really could afford at this point is to reach our core audience,” he said.

A new financial aid team at Hendrix that started this fall evaluated the options the college had in reaching more students in need of financial assistance.

“We looked at a lot of things,” Tsutsui said, adding that full need, offering no loan packages and four-year tuition guarantees were part of the discussion.

In the end, Hendrix felt addressing full need was the best route to go in helping out Arkansas students.

Full need incorporates tuition, fees, textbooks and monetary help for travel.

The 2014 breakdown of student costs at Hendrix for a year is: $38,990 for tuition, $300 in fees, $5,618 for room and $5,294 for board/meals.

That amounts to a total yearly cost of $50,202, with about $33,116 on average in yearly student aid.

Some colleges and institutions included in the College Board data meet all financial aid without the help of student loans.

“[At Hendrix, our program] really was based on the bottom line, what we could afford,” Tsutsui said. “I would love to have packages for families that have no loans in them, but if you look at other schools that are doing this program, places like Vanderbilt, the vast majority of them still rely on students taking those loans that are available through the state and federal government to make education possible.”

Once a student is in the Hendrix Arkansas Advantage program, the student can remain qualified if they are on good standing, Tsutsui said.

“This is not adding any new level of requirements to students,” he said.

Outside of Hendrix, state and federal aid programs may still require additional guidelines for students to remain qualified for their financial assistance.

Hendrix’s efforts in addressing financial need, notably among the most significant for an institution, is part of a statewide trend in helping young college students obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Other higher education institutions in Arkansas have launched aid programs, including Central Baptist College in Conway and Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

Both institutions provide assistance through loan repayment programs – the Mustang Advantage Program and the Loan Affordability Pledge, respectively.

(Staff writer Brandon Riddle can be reached by email at brandon.riddle@thecabin.net, by phone at 505-1215 or on Twitter @BrandonCRiddle. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to thecabin.net. Send us your news at thecabin.net/submit)