In a progressive move, Portland State has announced the launch of a tuition-free degree program which aims to make higher education accessible to all.
Beginning in the fall of 2023, the new program will reinforce the Four Years Free and Transfers Finish Free degree programs, covering the remaining tuition and most mandatory fees after financial aid is applied. Portland State Vanguard had a conversation with Chuck Knepfle—the Vice President for Enrollment Management who oversees admissions, financial aid and orientation for the university—to talk about the new program.
Vanguard: What is the PSU Tuition-Free Degree program? How does it work?
Chuck Knepfle: Tuition-Free Degree is what we call a last-dollar financial aid program for PSU students who qualify for the Federal Pell Grant. This means that after a student’s federal and state financial aid is applied to their tuition bill, Portland State will award our funds to ensure that the student does not have to pay tuition for their classes.
VG: What were the conversations leading up to the creation of the Tuition-Free Degree?
Knepfle: I believe in continuous improvement, both in how the offices under me operate and for the policies and procedures around our admission and financial aid programs. In that vein, I approached faculty and staff across campus to ask what was and was not working in the Four Years Free and Transfers Finish Free programs. As I engaged in those conversations some themes developed around common student concerns and suggestions. First and foremost was that we used the word “free” in both programs even though students still had responsibility to pay for books, transportation, food and housing. I also heard that students were sometimes struggling to maintain a full-time schedule, and that was required for them to stay eligible for both Four Years Free and Transfers Finish Free. And lastly, it was noted that not all students start in fall, and if they didn’t, they were not being considered. It was clear to me that we could make changes that would help us attract new students to PSU, and also to keep some enrolled who otherwise might have had to drop out.
VG: Who were the people behind the degree program?
Knepfle The division of Enrollment Management led this effort, but we had significant and invaluable input from our colleagues in the Advising Center, the student-facing staff in the Office of Global, Diversity and Inclusion and in Student Affairs. It was the definition of a team win.
VG: Do you think this will significantly increase student enrollment at PSU?
Knepfle: That depends on how you would define “significantly.” I believe it will have a positive impact on both new student enrollments and on student retention, but I’m hesitant to assign a number to it as it’s incredibly hard to predict.
VG: How is PSU able to afford this?
Knepfle: When Four Years Free and Transfers Finish Free were created, there was a budget set aside to fund those programs. However, since the Pell Grant has increased over time at a pace higher than Portland State’s tuition has gone up, we have seen that we have not needed all of the funding that was initially budgeted. We still wanted that funding to go to students in the form of need-based aid, so we made the decision to increase the number of fees that we could cover with university grants.
VG: Have you received any feedback or questions from the students or the communities since the announcement?
Knepfle: A lot of positive feedback! We even had over 150 students join us for an information session webinar about the new program. Their questions were primarily focused on general eligibility questions.
Readers who are interested in learning more about the program can do so by visiting PSU’s Tuition-Free Degree Webpage.