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Wash U Will Give Free Tuition To Low- To Mid-Income Students From Missouri, S. Illinois

Chancellor Andrew Martin greets the crowd at his inauguration event at Washington University on Thursday afternoon. Oct. 3, 2019
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Chancellor Andrew Martin greets the crowd at his inauguration event at Washington University on Thursday afternoon.

Regional students from low-income and middle-class backgrounds will be able to attend Washington University completely free under a major expansion of financial assistance by the prestigious university.

When it starts next year, the Wash U Pledge will be available to students from Missouri and the southern half of Illinois with household incomes below $75,000, which is roughly triple the federal poverty line for a family of four. The full cost of a Wash U education is about $72,000 a year with tuition, room and board and fees.

“As a leading educational institution, we must build sturdier bridges and more secure pipelines so that all talented people have the opportunity to receive a Wash U education,” Chancellor Andrew Martin said Thursday during his ceremonial inauguration.

Wash U has for several years covered tuition for students who qualify for a Pell Grant, a federal scholarship program for low-income students. The new pledge offers even more money to those students and widens the income threshold to qualify for free tuition beyond Pell eligibility. It will apply to about 250 students who are already enrolled, according to a university official. 

“If you are an under-resourced student, if you are Pell-eligible, then the cost of Wash U — your tuition, fees, room and board — we’re going to meet all of those costs up front and you don’t have to worry about that,” said Ronné Turner, vice provost for admissions.

In recent history, Wash U sat atop the list of the country’s most elite universities by having the wealthiest student body, according to The Equality of Opportunity Project. Fifteen percent of Wash U students now receive Pell Grants, up from 6% five years ago.

Debbie Greenberg, director of college counseling at College Bound St. Louis, called Wash U’s announcement a game-changer. College Bound helps first-generation and low-income students get into and through college.

“What they are doing is they are removing barriers” by covering the whole cost of attending, not just waiving tuition, Greenberg said. 

That will allow low-income students to participate in clubs and social activities, she said, without worrying about every added or hidden cost of college.

Pell Grants are worth up to about $6,000, depending on students’ federally determined financial need and cost of their college, which only puts a scratch in the $72,000-a-year full cost of attending Wash U.

Wash U has made other steps toward improving the economic diversity of its students in recent years. It has a mentorship program for low-income and first-generation college students. In February, it launched a grant program to help students pay for computers, books or dorm furnishings. It also runs a summer program for St. Louis-area high school students.

“We have a unique responsibility to provide opportunity for students in our extended region — to the four corners of Missouri and our neighbors in the southern portion of Illinois,” said Martin, who replaced Mark Wrighton as chancellor over the summer. “By doing so, we’re attracting our very best and brightest and keeping them right here, close to home.”

Eleven top colleges and universities promise students no loans by meeting their full financial need, according to U.S. News and World Report. Another 15 institutions don’t charge tuition, though that list is mostly made up of small niche schools and military academies.

The year-over-year increase in attending college has outpaced the household income gains for American families for four decades.

Webster University freezes tuition

Webster University also recently took a step toward improving college affordability. The liberal arts-focused school based in Webster Groves announced a tuition freeze for the 2020-21 academic year last week.

The full cost of attending Webster this year is just under $40,000, with tuition making up $28,700 of that. The university’s board of trustees approved keeping the tuition at that rate during its September meeting.

Webster has about 12,000 students at campuses in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and online.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.