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The Salt Lake Community College Promise initiative is inching closer to the dream of a free community college experience for Utah students who agree to take a full academic load and meet income guidelines.

SALT LAKE CITY β€” The Salt Lake Community College Promise initiative is inching closer to the dream of a free community college experience for Utah students who agree to take a full academic load and meet income guidelines.

Now in its third year, the program helps make college more affordable and accessible by waiving tuition and fees of qualifying resident students. The program fills in where federal financial aid falls short.

To qualify, applicants need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and be awarded a Pell Grant.

Students are required to take a full class load of 12 to 18 credit hours and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. Qualifying students must also meet with an adviser to develop a two-year degree plan.

SLCC Promise encourages students to take full class loads so they are more likely to complete their degrees, complete them sooner and at less expense.

It's a significant challenge for many SLCC students, President Deneece Huftalin told to a legislative commission earlier this week.

"Most of our students take six credit hours per a semester because many of them are working full time and have a mortgage and have kids and are doing the school at the same time they are doing life," Huftalin told the Utah Legislature's Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission.

"So our part-time population becomes really important and resourcing them and supporting them and not letting them get lost along the way becomes very important to us," she said.

Two years in, the college's reviews show SLCC Promise is meeting its objectives, said Charles Lepper, vice president for student affairs.

SLCC Promise participants take more credit hours and are on track to graduate ahead of peers not in the program, he said.

"It's showing that students who take the additional classes needed to be (enrolled) full time to participate in the (program), there is no negative impact on their GPA and they're on track to graduate a full semester ahead of their peers who do not participate in SLCC Promise," Lepper said.

Participating students take, on average, three more credit hours than students not in the program, which helps them move to degree completion quicker, he said.

That's significant because national studies show part-time participation in college significantly reduces the likelihood of degree completion.

According to a 2011 report by the nonprofit organization Complete College America, "part-time students rarely graduate. Even when given twice as long to complete certificates and degrees, no more than a quarter ever make it to graduation day."

Poor students and students of color encounter some of the greatest challenges earning their degrees, the report "Time is the Enemy" states.

"Even though more of these students than ever before are enrolling in college, too few end up with certificates or degrees," the report states.

SLCC research also found that taking larger class loads did not result in lower GPAs for participating students.

"That's counter to the argument of the more classes that you take, the more you may be taking on, so the lower you may be performing academically. Our data's not showing that," Lepper said.

The program also encourages higher participation in the federal aid process. In recent years, Utah has had the highest percentage of high school graduates β€” 55 percent β€” who did not complete the federal financial aid application. That resulted in graduating seniors missing out on an estimated $36 million in Pell Grant aid, according to a NerdWallet analysis.

More than 800 students were assisted by the SLCC Promise last year, up from 721 in 2016-17 academic year, the program's inaugural year. Some $1.6 million in tuition has been waived since the program was launched.

While the program drastically cuts the cost of attending Salt Lake Community College for student who qualify, Lepper said he "wouldn't call it free money because the student is committing to do certain things as well."

Students do not have to apply for SLCC Promise. The college notifies them if they are eligible and they have the option of accepting the tuition and fee waivers.

"We spend a lot of time talking to our students why this is there, how to accept it and how to maximize it and leverage it as a resource for their college education," Lepper said.

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Academic advisers, financial aid officers, the admission office and staff that conduct orientations sessions help spread the word about the program, he said.

"It really is an institutional commitment. All hands are on deck in helping to make this that every student knows about and understands and can take advantage of. It’s really becoming part of our DNA as an institution," Lepper said.

Students who have been helped by the program say SLCC Promise has been "life altering," he said.

"It may mean they have to work less and focus more time on being a student and completing," he said.