UPS announces financial aid package for Tacoma Public Schools graduates

The University of Puget Sound, founded in Tacoma more than 125 years ago, wants to nourish its local roots by offering a new financial aid package solely for graduates of Tacoma public high schools.

The university is committed to meeting the financial needs of students who graduate from one of Tacoma’s eight public high schools and are admitted to UPS, beginning in the 2015-16 academic year. The aid will come as a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and work-study jobs.

University President Ronald Thomas said the move is “consistent with our values as an institution – civic engagement, being good citizens and good neighbors in our own community.”

Carla Santorno, superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, said the university offer is well-timed.

The school district has put increasing emphasis in recent years not only on getting kids to graduate, but also on getting them to think about what they’ll do after graduation.

Earlier this year, the district and the private Foundation for Tacoma Students launched a community campaign called Graduate Tacoma, which includes a component focused on college completion.

“The whole city has really embraced this effort of working to make sure we give Tacoma students as many opportunities to be successful in a post-secondary environment as we can,” Santorno said.

She called the new commitment from UPS “a game-changer for many of our bright students who, because of their family’s economic circumstances, might never think of applying to Puget Sound.”

Finances are one of the biggest obstacles to college completion, and college affordability has become a hot national topic.

Thomas said the university hopes to alleviate some of the obstacles for hometown students with the new financial aid program.

He sees it as an outgrowth of existing partnerships with Tacoma Public Schools, which include summer programs and mentoring for middle and high school students, local youth participation in events such as the upcoming national Race & Pedagogy Conference, which will be held on campus, and more.

The new aid package will focus on a student’s financial need, as demonstrated on federal or state financial aid applications. Financial aid will be calculated after a student’s expected family contribution is determined by those applications.

The applications consider family income and assets, family size, the number of children in college and other factors to determine what a student’s family is expected to contribute.

After that, the university pledges to cover the student’s educational cost with federal, state and university resources.

Those resources will include a combination of scholarships, grants, loans and work-study. Work-study won’t exceed $3,000 a year and loans will not exceed $5,500 a year under the Tacoma initiative.

The current annual total cost of attendance at UPS is $57,908. The total cost figure – a standard used by colleges nationwide – includes tuition and room and board, as well as books, supplies and other expenses students can expect.

The university will subtract the expected family contribution from the total cost of attendance to determine a student’s financial aid need.

Helping to fund the Tacoma initiative and other needs at UPS is a $125 million capital campaign that began seven years ago. It includes about $44 million for a financial aid endowment, Thomas said.

“The kind of education we offer is, by definition, very expensive,” he said.

The university emphasizes small classes – it has an 11:1 student to faculty ratio. That gives students access to faculty members they might not get on a larger campus.

“This is a high-touch approach to education,” Thomas added.

Private universities must deliver their services without a major cash infusion from taxpayers. Thomas said that 10 to 15 years ago, state and federal aid represented about 3 percent of the university’s budget. Today, it’s about 2 percent.

Decades ago, UPS was the go-to college for Tacoma students. But changes in the higher education landscape brought local students another choice, with the University of Washington Tacoma’s expansion in the city’s downtown.

And UPS itself has undergone changes.

“In the last 20 years, I would say that the university moved from being a local college to a national institution, drawing students from around the country,” Thomas said.

UPS regularly makes the “best of” lists of various college guides, and it’s consistently recognized for producing everything from Fulbright scholars to Peace Corps volunteers.

But the growing national reputation has changed the makeup of its student body.

Today, of the more than 2,600 students on campus, about 80 percent come from outside Washington state, according to Jenny Rickard, vice president for enrollment. She said only about 2 percent are from a Tacoma public high school.

Thomas, who’s been at the university helm for 11 years, is proud of its accomplishments. But he also is aware that the institution has developed a local reputation as being “too expensive and too selective” for Tacoma students to even consider.

Thomas and others hope the new program will allow the university to reconnect once again with the city that has nurtured its growth for more than a century.

“We all felt it was time to invest more in our local community and make sure that students here have the same opportunity as students around the country,” Thomas said.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune