State Grant Program Provides Pathway to Higher Education for Thousands of Arizonans

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Photo via Arizona Board of Regents

By Steven Cohen

July 20, 2023

When Alexia Silva Buelna, 20, graduates from Arizona State University next June, she’ll leave college debt-free on a promising path to a business law career.

A good measure of her success can be attributed to the Arizona Promise Program, which, for the past three years, has offered college grants to full-time, Pell Grant–eligible resident students at the three public state universities—ASU, University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University.

Silva Buelna, the second youngest of four siblings, set her sights on becoming the first in her family to earn a university degree well before graduating from Yuma’s Kofa High School in 2020. She wanted to attend ASU in part because she would have more opportunities for internships in Phoenix.

But first Silva Buelna needed to figure out a way to pay for college.

 

College Without Debt

“I knew that to reach my goals, I had to figure out other ways to pay for tuition and fees outside of FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to apply for financial aid for college or graduate school],” she said. The financial aid award based on FAFSA doesn’t cover full tuition, books, or other expenses.

A number of Silva Buelna’s high school classmates applied for the President Barack Obama Scholars Program, offered to students whose parents make under $42,000. Silva Buelna knew she wouldn’t qualify because her parents made over the limit—her father is a truck driver; her mother, a border patrol agent.

But after submitting her FAFSA, Silva Buelna was directed to the then-new Arizona Promise, one of the two options available on ASU’s financial aid site that she qualified for.

In her freshman year, Silva Buelna received $2,600 in federal Pell Grants plus another $3,900 in Promise funds, which covered her remaining tuition and fees. By the time she graduates from ASU, Silva Buelna will have received more in Promise than Pell funds.

 

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State Pledges Millions for Education Grants

This year, state appropriations supported 5,600 Promise-eligible students like Silva Buelna (out of more than 19,000 Arizona Pell Grant recipients). Arizona’s public universities covered the rest of the tuition and fees not covered through Pell Grants for qualifying Promise students.

Investing in schools and securing the Arizona Promise Program were priorities of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs when she took office in January. The 2024 budget Hobbs signed in May included an additional $20 million, bringing total funding for the grants program to $40 million in 2024.

At least 20 other states have enacted Promise Programs, and all have seen higher high school graduation rates, increased college attendance, and greater graduation rates, according to the Arizona Board of Regents.

 

Eliminating the Debt Barrier

The guaranteed scholarship funding comes at a critical time for lower-income families who are considering college. President Biden’s proposal to cancel some student debt for tens of millions of borrowers was nullified by a Supreme Court ruling in late June.

“What I really love about the Promise program is that it eliminates that debt barrier,” said Arizona Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Glendale, who went straight into the workforce after high school and never attended college. “My parents didn’t have the money to put me through [college], and I wasn’t aware of some of the programs that exist now.”

“It’s [still] going to be very challenging for these students,” said Vienna Munoz, a sophomore at Northern Arizona University. Even with a sizable Arizona Promise grant, she has a work-study position in NAU’s financial aid office, approximately 10–15 hours a week, and is working three jobs this summer.

For Silva Buelna, who is an active member of the Hispanic Business Students Association as well as an intern at the Tempe-based business DriveTime, discovering the Promise Program funded her college dream and will leave her without crippling debt.

“I got everything that I wanted to experience in college: academics, friends, clubs, interesting classes and projects. . . . The list goes on,” she said.

And in June, when Silva Buelna earns her bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in human resources, her family will be in Tempe, excited and proud to celebrate with her.

 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Maricopa Community Colleges as schools eligible for the Arizona Promise Program. We regret the error.

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