Kendra Boggess

During a press conference on the campus of Concord University Friday, Dr. Kendra Boggess made an announcement that West Virginia residents who are Pell eligible and have a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher can get a four-year degree from Concord University tuition free. Sarah Beasley, Vice President of Student affairs and Dean of Students, left, looks on.

photo by Eric DiNovo

ATHENS — Concord University is the first in the state to offer free tuition for four years to Pell Grant recipients who qualify.

CU President Dr. Kendra Boggess made the announcement Friday morning, saying that the program is effective immediately and will be available for the 2019-20 school year to students who met the April 15 deadline to submit their FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Pell Grants are federal subsidies providing financial help for students to attend college whose families meet certain income criteria.

“We are excited to be here to make an announcement about continued efforts to make college affordable for our students,” she said.

The CU Free tuition program applies to students who qualify for the federal Pell Grant program and the criteria also include being a West Virginia resident and maintaining a 3.0 GPA (Grade Point Average) in high school.

For those who qualify, tuition will be free for the eight semesters needed for a four-year degree as long as they are attended consecutively, the students maintain a 2.5 GPA and they attend full time, she said.

Boggess said CU Free can also be used by transfer students who have maintained a 2.75 GPA at the college or university from which they are transferring.

Students can also graduate with no debt associated with tuition costs.

“We are thrilled about this,” said Sarah Beasley, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, adding that they saw students were struggling financially as state money decreased and tuition increased.

Boggess said several things came together to offer the program, including an increase in state funding after years of deep cuts and state grants to help bridge the gap between what the Pell Grant pays and the balance of the tuition expense.

Students qualify for Pell Grants at different levels of funding, depending on family income, and the state money as well as funds set aside at Concord through various sources will make up the difference, enabling the tuition free program.

“Concord is committed to helping our residents overcome financial adversity to achieve their educational goals,” Boggess said, adding that CU has the third largest foundation in the state behind WVU and Marshall. “We are working hard to raise more funding.”

About 48 percent of CU students receive Pell Grants, and she said that number could increase as more students take advantage of the CU Free program.

It also gives students the incentive to finish their degrees, she added. Currently, the retention rate for Pell Grant students is 60 percent.

Only a handful of colleges nationwide have started this program, Beasley said.

Not only will the program provide free tuition, students who want to be residential but can’t afford to do so may qualify for other scholarships/awards from foundations and endowments.

A system to help students meet some basic needs is also in place.

Beasley said student surveys have found that over 40 percent had faced “food insecurity” at some point at Concord.

“We saw our students hurting,” she said, adding that many people may not realize college students could be hungry or even homeless.

“That got us thinking about what we need to do,” she said, and a food pantry was set up. “We knew we needed to do more.”

The financial issues of students also prompted Concord to establish an emergency grant fund, the CU Gap Fund, about a year and a half ago, she said, providing help to students who have unexpected expenses, like a car repair, that could jeopardize their ability to continue taking classes.

An academic success center is also available for students who may be facing challenges and need help, including online tutoring.

Beasley said a student philanthropy committee has also been established to provide help.

“Institutions like Concord are on the front lines of making college accessible to low income students,” she said.

The goals of the programs include keeping students already enrolled in school and bringing in students who may not otherwise attend college.

“I think this is wonderful,” Beasley said of the CU Free program. “It’s a step in making college more affordable and accessible to students in West Virginia and particularly Southern West Virginia.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com