Obama Scholars Program will aid 2,000 - East Valley Tribune: News

Obama Scholars Program will aid 2,000

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Posted: Thursday, May 14, 2009 2:45 pm | Updated: 1:17 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Yobani Mejia-Lopez was supposed to receive less than $5,000 in financial aid next year, his freshman year, at Arizona State University.

That amount wouldn't have even paid the Westwood High School senior's tuition, let alone the thousands of dollars he would need for textbooks, room and board. Mejia-Lopez said he planned to be employed full-time while going to school to cover all his bills.

Yobani Mejia-Lopez

"I was going to work to find a way because money shouldn't stop people from going to college," Mejia-Lopez said.

Thanks to President Barack Obama's visit to deliver the ASU commencement address Wednesday, Mejia-Lopez is one of 2,000 incoming freshmen who won't have to pay a cent for their education the next four years.

ASU is doubling the number of freshmen students it grants a full-ride, need-based financial aid package to, to honor the president and to calm controversy over the university's decision to not award Obama an honorary degree when he delivered the commencement address. Michael Crow, the university president, renamed the university's primary financial aid program for low-income students - previously ASU Advantage - the Obama Scholars Program.

Those students will receive a bundle of grants, scholarships and work-study jobs worth $17,000 each of the next four years.

"What a wonderful gift," Obama said of the financial aid expansion during his commencement address at Sun Devil Stadium on Wednesday night. "That notion of opening doors of opportunity to everybody, that is the core mission of this school. It's a core mission of my presidency and I hope this program will serve as a model for universities across this country."

ASU has made accessibility a top priority for decades, keeping costs relatively low while accepting the vast majority of applicants.

However, scholarships and grants for low-income students have largely failed to keep pace with ASU's rocketing tuition rate, according to university enrollment data.

ASU students who received need-based financial aid - 35 percent of all undergraduates - on average got $10,062 this school year. But according to the data, more than $4,000 of that came from loans, saddling the most financially vulnerable students with debt.

The university is boosting its need-based financial aid funding by $3 million, almost 10 percent, starting next fall, said Craig Fennell, ASU's financial aid director.

For thousands of ASU students, the Obama scholarship might help make up the gap between their higher education costs and their financial aid dollars, said James Rund, an ASU senior vice president for student initiatives.

"We feel confident that there will not be any adverse or negative impact on the student body at large, which is seeking financial support from us," Rund said. "On the contrary, we feel like making a more explicit commitment at this income level will go a long way to helping. Particularly (for) Arizona families, many of whom are hurting as a result of the economic downturn."

The cost of an ASU education has increased 119 percent the past five years for Arizona resident undergraduates. Meanwhile, the university funnels roughly a fifth of all tuition revenue to low-income students' financial aid.

Despite that, since 2004, the average scholarship and grant package has increased more slowly than tuition and fee increases all but two years, the data shows.

Rund said ASU has worked to increase financial aid spending, and the university expects to remedy any shortfall with the Obama scholarships.

"By all indicators to date, we feel confident that we're accomplishing that goal," Rund said.

The university is changing how it defines low-income students.

Previously, only in-state students whose household income was $25,000 or below automatically received higher education for free. From now on, if a student's income is $60,000 or below and they meet ASU's basic academic requirements, the university and federal government will pay their way.

That change will spare Mejia-Lopez, the Westwood senior, a potentially overwhelming mix of full-time work and full-time school. His grandparents raised him since he was 8 years old, when both his parents died, in a household of 11 relatives.

That household earns more than $25,000 a year, which in past years would have limited Mejia-Lopez's need-based grants and scholarships. The microbiology major, and aspiring dentist, said it's a relief that he need only worry about schoolwork, not bills.

Before the graduation ceremony Wednesday, Mejia-Lopez said he was awed by the prospect of meeting Obama in-person, and by the amount in scholarships the president's visit will provide him.

"I wasn't expecting something as big as this," he said.

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