Ferrum College on Wednesday announced a program that will offer free tuition to some in-state students. Photo by Lisa Rowan.

Ferrum College will offer free tuition to some in-state students starting this fall, the school announced Wednesday.

Students from Virginia with an estimated family contribution of $2,900 or less on their FAFSA — the annual application that determines eligibility for federal financial aid — will receive free tuition. Recipients will most likely have a household income of less than $50,000, based on a FAFSA estimator.

Meanwhile, all out-of-state students will be eligible for a $4,500 annual scholarship. 

Ferrum, a private Methodist school in Franklin County, named the program the Panther Promise, a nod to the school’s mascot.

“There are a multitude of challenges facing students and their families and extended support systems,” Mirta Martin, Ferrum’s interim president, said before an audience of about 250 students and staff on Wednesday morning. The college’s new program affirms Ferrum’s commitment to providing affordable access to higher education, she said.

The brief announcement was met with cheers and a standing ovation.

Tuition at Ferrum cost about $37,000 this year, plus an estimated $13,000 for room and board. 

Panther Promise recipients must live on campus, and they will still need to pay for room and board.

It’s unclear precisely how many incoming students will receive free or reduced tuition through the new program, but Ferrum staff noted that 26% of new students admitted for fall 2023 are eligible for Pell grants. Those students are more likely to be eligible for the free tuition program. 

Just over half of students admitted for fall 2023 are in-state, while 18% of all admitted students are from Southwest Virginia.

About 39% of returning students will be eligible for the Panther Promise in the fall. 

Mirta Martin, Ferrum’s interim president, announced the Panther Pride program on Wednesday.

“So many people have ability and intellect, but they’re deterred from continuing a college education because of the price tag it bears,” Martin said in an interview following the announcement. “Many years ago, I was one of those students. And I haven’t forgotten my roots,” she said.

Martin has served as interim president since January, when she took over for David Johns, who left suddenly in November after five years.  

When Martin was hired at Ferrum, the school made note of her performance at her previous role as president of Fairmont State University in West Virginia. There, she was credited with a $20.5 million financial turnaround and increased enrollment over five years before ending her contract early.

Martin said Ferrum “started to very candidly play with the numbers” during discussions about how to attract and retain students, and she said the small size of the school allowed it to be nimble in making a decision to launch the Panther Promise. 

Ferrum has a student population of about 850. In fall 2013, it had about 1,500 undergraduate students.

The school has made several moves in recent years to increase affordability and draw in applicants. Ferrum announced in November 2020 that it would freeze undergraduate tuition rates for the 2021-2022 academic year, and guaranteed that tuition wouldn’t increase more than 5% cumulatively through spring of 2025. 

The tuition freeze has continued, with this year’s rates guaranteed for students returning for 2023-2024.

In May, Ferrum saw its first Ferrum Promise graduate. This program ensures that a community college student transferring to Ferrum with an associate degree from a Virginia community college can obtain their bachelor’s degree in no more than two additional years. If they’re not able to meet the requirements in that window, the remainder of their tuition at Ferrum is free. 

Across the nation, colleges and universities are rethinking their tuition rates to be more attractive to prospective students. 

One challenge is a shrinking population with fewer college-age people than decades ago. But there are compounding factors: As the price of a degree has risen, options like two-year degrees and career and technical training have gained popularity. 

Some employers have even dropped the once-standard requirement of a college degree. Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are among states that have recently dropped their degree requirement for state government jobs. 

Two recent examples of schools offering free tuition: In Detroit, Wayne State University announced in March it will guarantee free tuition to in-state students who have family incomes of less than $70,000.

And last fall, Princeton University in New Jersey announced free tuition for students with families earning less than $100,000, an increase from the current $65,000 income threshold.

But both examples are in regions that are far more populated than the area around Ferrum. Rural Franklin County has a population of about 55,000. 

Wayne State has around 15,000 undergraduate students, while Princeton has approximately 5,500 undergraduates. 

In Virginia, students pursuing some in-demand fields can attend community college for free through the G3 program. But Ferrum seems to be the first individual school in the state offering free tuition to all in-state students in a certain financial category.

Some Virginia schools, meanwhile, have started offering discounted or free tuition to certain local applicants. Virginia State University offers free tuition to Pell grant-eligible students who live within 25 miles of its Petersburg campus. And Bluefield University in Tazewell County offers reduced tuition to students who live in 13 Virginia counties, along with six counties in West Virginia. 

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at lisa@cardinalnews.org or 540-384-1313.