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Washington University's Pledge program will provide a free college education for low-income students from Missouri and southern Illinois

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ST. LOUIS — Starting next fall, Washington University will provide a free education to any student from Missouri or southern Illinois whose family income is under $75,000.

“When all individuals have the same opportunities to thrive and flourish, all of us serve to benefit,” said Andrew Martin, the university’s new chancellor, in his inaugural address Thursday.

The WashU Pledge will cover the costs of tuition, room and board and fees for applicants who meet the financial requirements and are admitted as full-time undergraduates starting in fall 2020. About 250 qualifying students who are already enrolled also will receive the award package valued at about $75,000 annually.

The program for students from the region comes after decades of efforts by university leaders to pursue an international reputation as a research institution.

“Being a good neighbor and being one of the world’s great research universities are not mutually exclusive,” Martin said. “I want to eradicate any kind of perception that St. Louis is merely Wash. U.’s side gig.”

The aid program is one of the most generous in the country. At Rice University in Houston, students with family incomes under $65,000 receive tuition, room and board, and fees. Other universities offer free tuition-only programs or financial aid packages with no loans. At Washington U., the aid includes living expenses and does not have a work-study requirement.

“This is huge on a national level and huge for St. Louis,” said Debbie Greenberg of the College Bound program for low-income students. “This truly levels the playing field.”

Washington U. took some criticism after last year’s selection of Martin as the university’s 15th chancellor and the latest in a succession of white men. Martin’s supporters said they were impressed with his stated commitment to racial and socioeconomic equity, and said to watch his actions as chancellor.

“One of the things we knew immediately about Chancellor Martin, he was very concerned about access and making the university affordable,” said Ronné Patrick Turner, vice provost for admissions and financial aid. “We’re trying to take finances off the table for talented students from our region; students who wouldn’t even have applied to Wash. U. because they were worried about the money.”

One of Martin’s first moves as chancellor in January was to create startup grants for low-income students to get laptops, books, winter clothes and other supplies, Turner said.

University officials have considered the risk of schemes from middle- and upper-class families who don’t qualify for the program financially. The parents of at least 40 college students from the Chicago suburbs gave up guardianship of their children in recent years to obtain more generous financial aid packages from colleges including the University of Missouri, according to a ProPublica investigation earlier this year.

Applicants who have a legal guardian or other red flags could get extra scrutiny such as discussions with high school counselors, Turner said.

“It is very hard for any institution or process that is somehow based on trust,” she said.

About 15% of this year’s freshman class of 1,744 students is eligible for a federal Pell grant, indicating a low-income family, up from about 5% in 2012. Many but not all of those students already receive generous financial aid packages, Turner said. While the university does not have a target number of students to enroll in the pledge program, school officials suspect there are some who don’t apply because they think they won’t be able to afford the university.

The number of students from the St. Louis area who qualify for the program financially and have academic records meeting Washington U. standards is small, said Alan Byrd, co-chair of St. Louis Graduates and vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Of course we applaud all efforts to make college more affordable,” Byrd said. “It’s up to all of us to create opportunities for more students to be able to take advantage of programs like this.”

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