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Omaha Magazine

They Promise: Nebraska Brings Higher Education to Many In-State Students

Oct 05, 2020 10:19AM ● By Sean McCarthy
Katie Burton, left, Briana Orellana, right

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sitting (socially distanced) at Stories Coffee Co., Ralston High School graduate Briana Orellana’s eyes lit up when she began to talk about law enforcement. When she was younger, she wanted to be a lawyer. Now, she’s studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Her mother, Jackie Merino, encouraged her to attend the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then, Orellana’s aunt told her about an article she read that mentioned a program offering free in-state tuition for Nebraska students. Orellana contacted her school in Ralston and found out she qualified for the program. Suddenly, UNL became more of an option. A visit to the Lincoln campus sealed the deal for her. 

“I thought it was really nice,” she said. “I was excited I was able to attend.”

The cost of tuition remains a major barrier to higher education for low-income families in Nebraska, as well as middle-income ones. According to UNO’s financial calculator, the cost of tuition for the 2020-21 academic school year is $8,136. UNL’s financial calculator estimated tuition cost for its university at $9,690. Those students with families earning less than $60,000 a year, however, may find the tuition cost at $0 under the Nebraska Promise program. 

The program automatically renews after each academic year. To continue receiving the funds, one needs to be a full-time student, a Nebraska resident, and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Families do not need to apply for Nebraska Promise; eligibility is automatically checked when they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms, and the money goes directly to their bank accounts. Graduate students are not eligible for Nebraska Promise. 

The program was unveiled in April by University of Nebraska president Ted Carter. In a phone interview, Carter said the $60,000 figure was chosen because it represented the median income for Nebraska households. The U.S. Census placed the median household income for Nebraskans at $59,116 (in 2018 dollars). 

Nebraska Promise replaces Collegebound Nebraska, a similar tuition relief program. With Collegebound Nebraska, students from families that made less than $40,000 a year were able to go to school tuition-free. Carter, a former superintendent at the U.S. Naval Academy, began his role as president of the University of Nebraska system in January. Carter said Nebraska Promise was a top priority of his at the beginning of the year, but as COVID-19 went from a concerning illness to a pandemic capable of shutting down entire universities, the need to implement the tuition-free program became critical. 

“Had we not done this, we probably would be down 10% enrollment,” Carter said. 

On April 17, Carter announced Nebraska Promise would be available for the fall 2020 academic year. He estimated the cost of the program to be around $5 million. Carter said the program was paid from the estimated $43 million in cuts over the next three years. Even with the $43 million in cuts, the University of Nebraska system estimated a $50 million shortfall for the last budget year, which ended on June 30. 

This fall, universities are facing a shortage of students, further adding to their budget woes. The University of Wyoming forecast a 20% enrollment drop for the fall semester. In April, the American Council on Education predicted a 25% drop in enrollment from international students because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Carter hoped interest in the Nebraska Promise program would offset some of the anticipated enrollment losses from international students. A look at the number of university applicants (applied, not enrolled) showed the program has already proven to be a success. Carter said he hoped the news of the program would result in about 1,000 additional applications. Instead, he saw 3,000 new college applications since the program was unveiled. 

Carter said he didn’t look at other university tuition-free programs as a model (for example, the University of Virginia covers tuition for students whose families make less than $80,000 a year). Instead, he just sought to expand the Collegebound Nebraska program. When Nebraska Promise was unveiled, Carter said he routinely heard from people who didn’t know about the previous Collegebound Nebraska program. 

As university president, I was kind of happy that people saw this in a completely new way, as if it was a brand-new program,” he said. 

“It generated a lot of buzz, and that’s what we want,” Carter continued. “I want to see as many people be able to take advantage as we can.” 

According to a U.S. News & World Report article about college costs, 46% of University of Nebraska-Lincoln undergraduates receive some sort of need-based financial aid. For the University of Nebraska at Omaha, that number is much higher at 58%. 

This program is best described as supplemental insurance. A student pledging to attend UNL whose family makes $45,000 per year, for example, would be eligible for Pell Grants. If that student received $2,500 in Pell Grants and a $2,500 scholarship, Nebraska Promise would supply the remaining $4,690 in tuition money.

An important point is that, while the possibility of a tuition-free college experience lifts a tremendous financial burden from students, tuition is only half of the cost of education. The combined costs of books, room and board, fees, and parking can cost just as much, if not more. And these costs are not covered by Nebraska Promise. 

Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of UNO and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said Pell Grants and other types of aid such as work study can cover non-tuition costs like room, board, and books. The estimated yearly cost of room and board at UNO is $10,196 ($11,830 at UNL). To further alleviate some of the costs to students, the University of Nebraska system froze tuition rates for students for the next two years. 

“That’s a commitment to all of our students—that whatever they’re paying in tuition this fall, they’ll pay for at least the next three years,” Gold said. 

Almost two weeks before moving into the UNL dorms, Katie Burton sat with her mom, Tracie, at Scooter’s. Katie graduated from Bennington High School this past spring and is studying pre-P.A. (physician’s assistant) at UNL. Katie ultimately wants to be a dermatologist, but she heard about UNL’s pre-P.A. program through a mentor who was assigned to her during New Student Enrollment. Katie said Nebraska Promise did not affect her decision to attend UNL. Still, she was happy to be graduating with less debt. 

“It’s helping our whole family too. It’s not just helping me. It’s helping my brother [a junior at UNL], and you,” Katie said, pointing to Tracie. “It’s a blessing.” 

Tracie works as an early childhood special educator at Anchor Pointe Elementary. She found out about Nebraska Promise through an article from on her phone app. Two weeks after filling out Katie’s FAFSA forms, the funds from Nebraska Promise showed up in her account.  

“We jumped up and down I think a couple of times,”
Katie said.

Tracie herself was able to graduate from UNO debt-free. While studying in Omaha, Tracie lived at home. 

“Back then, tuition was like $1,500 a semester.” 

A report published by LendEDU (sort of a LendingTree for college loans) estimated the average student loan debt for Nebraska graduates to be about $26,225 in 2019. Tracie hoped her son and daughter wouldn’t have as big of a financial burden to shoulder after graduation.

“I don’t want my kids to come out of school with a tremendous amount of debt,” Burton said. “I think with this [Nebraska Promise], they’re not going to have the debt that they would have.” 

Once students like Katie and Orellana graduate, they will make the decision about whether to stay in Nebraska. Legislators, professors, and business leaders have wrestled with the state’s persistent “brain drain” problem. Orellana said she would like to move out of Nebraska after she graduates. Katie is leaning toward staying in the state. 

Carter said he heard some suggestions of requiring students who receive Nebraska Promise funds to stay in the state after graduation. He preferred a more positive approach to prevent other states from poaching new graduates. Carter said combatting brain drain is one of his goals as university president. He hopes that Nebraska Promise will be part of the solution to that problem. 

“By offering this [free tuition], these young men and women who are already Nebraskans are very likely to stay in this state…and turn this into another path to being a much better citizen for the state of Nebraska,” Carter said. 

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This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.