As a Foss High School student, Thavy Thach knew he wanted to go to college but didn’t know where. Schools in New York and California were appealing, but not practical.
Another college he didn’t think would work out was right in his backyard: The University of Puget Sound.
A Tacoma native, Thach knew about the private liberal arts college. He also knew that the cost of enrolling — UPS estimates students will pay around $60,000 for tuition, room and board this year — was more than his family could afford.
“I didn’t think of it as a major choice,” said Thach, who graduated from Foss last June. “Cost was a main reason.”
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Likewise, Lincoln High School graduate Joelle French never thought she could afford to take classes inside the school’s impressive brick buildings.
“I definitely wanted to go to UPS. I knew it was a good school to go to,” she said. “But pricing was always an issue.”
Thach and French recounted their stories this month from different corners of the UPS student center. Both are enrolled as freshmen at the school of 2,600 undergraduate students.
Fifteen other local graduates are also new to UPS this year because the college is covering a large share of the cost of tuition under a program called the Tacoma Public Schools Commitment.
This is the first year UPS has offered the financial assistance to students who have three consecutive years of enrollment at a Tacoma high school and meet academic and other enrollment standards.
The goal is to make University of Puget Sound more accessible to Tacoma families. After reviewing enrollment numbers, it became clear to UPS leaders that homegrown students weren’t choosing the school, said Jenny Rickard, vice president of enrollment.
“Students were being admitted, but students weren’t coming here, largely for financial reasons,” she said.
The university has now collaborated with the school district to encourage more high school students to pursue higher education.
There are 17 Tacoma graduates enrolled at UPS this year. That’s more than double the eight enrolled last year and the highest enrollment the school has seen since fall 2013, when it had 10 Tacoma students.
“We don’t want to be that school that’s in their backyard that’s seemingly inaccessible because of financial need,” said David Chiu, assistant professor of computer science.
The new partnership includes a commitment for UPS to cover the remaining education costs after the families pay what they can afford, as determined by federal guidelines, and after limited loans, limited student paid work, and any outside scholarships or grants.
Tacoma Public Schools deputy superintendent Josh Garcia applauds the initiative.
“I’m not familiar with (a private school) that has made this kind of commitment to a public school,” Garcia said. “It’s courageous.”
Pacific Lutheran University and University of Washington Tacoma also have partnerships with Tacoma Public Schools, Garcia said.
The PLU program specifically targets local students looking to pursue a degree in education. The arrangement with UPS doesn’t look for local students in just one area of study; it caters to any who meet enrollment requirements.
Through its Access Programs UPS focuses on students from low-income families, students of color or those who would be the first in their family to graduate from college. Thach and French both fit in that last category.
With its new TPS Commitment program, the university helps anyone with financial need.
Thach spent the summer between his junior and senior years at Foss in a four-week academic challenge at UPS to study science and math.
A computer science major, he said that experience changed how he viewed the hometown university.
A phone call from Chiu and a visit to Chiu’s computer science class ultimately confirmed Thach’s decision to apply.
“He’s a professor in my major subject of interest, and he’s talking to me about prospective jobs in the area and how getting a degree in that area would help me,” Thach said. “He was telling me how a private university will invest more in me than a public university will.”
Meanwhile, French plans to double major in psychology and business at a college that’s only 15 minutes from her home, but might seem half a world away.
“Joelle from the East Side gets to go live on the north side of Tacoma,” said Jake Clausen, graduation support specialist at Lincoln.
Clausen is the one who encouraged French to apply. The two remain close; he regularly checks in with her to share her college experience.
In her first two months of college, French is learning how to balance her newfound independence with feeling homesick sometimes.
“It’s a really weird change,” she said.
She makes a point to go home for family dinners twice a week and says family support is what motivated her to be the first in her family to attend college.
Her father, George, also attended Lincoln but dropped out before graduation. He went to trade school and became a mechanic. He’s has pushed his children to finish their education and find success.
“I think I was doing cartwheels and back flips,” George French said about his reaction to his daughter’s admittance into UPS. “I knew she earned it.”