Adrian Tinajero thought the scariest thing about going to college was paying for it.
But he wanted to make his family proud. He also didn't want his mother to have to take extra housekeeping shifts to help pay for his tuition.
"In my mind, paying for college seemed like a huge wall," he said. "I always wondered how smart, capable people could follow their dreams if they don't have the money to pay for college."
Tinajero, whose family has moved back to Mexico, graduated from Weber State University in 2008 and now works at the school helping to recruit underrepresented populations. He said the biggest hurdle people have in accomplishing their dreams is coming up with the means to get a degree.
Now those populations, provided they meet specific eligibility requirements, will be able to attend WSU for up to eight semesters of school free of charge.
The school plans to harness the benefits of available federal and state financial aid and combine it with $2 million from an anonymous donor, to offer up to 2,000 students in the program's first year a cost-free education through the "Dream Weber" program.
In a time when universities throughout the state are cutting budgets and individuals are dealing with an economic downturn, WSU President Ann Millner said it's nice to be able to offer some good news.
"What's important is that students from low-income families know that this program will provide a path for them to go to college," she said.
Dream Weber is modeled after a Texas program and is the first of its kind to be offered in Utah.
"Higher education is vitally important to the economic prosperity of our state," Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said Tuesday. He said that unlike in other countries, America's only barrier to progression is education and "having the sheepskin."
A college degree made all the difference for Bell, and for J. Willard Marriott Sr., both WSU graduates. Marriott was a first-generation student when he approached former Weber President Aaron Tracy, asking for help to fund his education. He went on to found Marriott International, a leading lodging and hospitality company.
"Financial hardship shouldn't be an impediment to pursuing a college education," said WSU Provost Michael Vaughan. "This program is WSU's commitment to helping provide entry-level access to higher education."
Utah families with a household income of $25,000 or less, whose students are Pell Grant eligible, must apply for the tuition break and file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid before the March 1 deadline. Under the program, students still may have to pay for books and fees out of pocket. They must also carry a full course load — at least 12 credits — and can receive financial awards to cover up to eight semesters, which is long enough to complete a bachelor's degree. Tuition for two semesters at Weber is currently $3,358 and a maximum Pell Grant award will fund up to $5,000 or 75 percent of tuition costs; however, the average Pell Grant typically funds around 42 percent.
"It's just one less thing we have to worry about," Tinajero said. "If you have to work full time while going to college, you can only hope to get good grades. And it pretty much rules out medical school or law school if you can't get good grades. Now there are no more excuses."
Millner said she hopes the program will be available indefinitely, to help as many students as possible, "giving everyone in our community an opportunity to achieve a higher education."
"A generous donation has made a real difference to us," she said. Millner said the school will continue to raise funds for the Dream Weber program, as well as other scholarship and student advantage programs already available at Weber. More information about the new program can be found online at www.weber.edu/dreamweber.
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