First-year UMPI student Tiffany Morrow speaks with Jason Towers, executive director for enrollment management, on the ways in which UMPI's The Way It Should Be program has helped make her educational goals more possible. Credit: Melissa Lizotte | Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Tiffany Morrow of Van Buren was nearing the end of her high school years, she thought that her college education would be more financially attainable if she joined the military full time and took college classes part time.

Morrow’s plans quickly changed after she applied for the University of Maine at Presque Isle’s The Way It Should Be program, which awards qualifying students from Maine free or reduced tuition based on financial need.

“When I received my financial statement, it said that I qualified for free tuition,” said Morrow, who is a 2019 graduate of Van Buren District Secondary School.

This fall Morrow began her first year at UMPI as a criminal justice major. She was one of numerous students who received Free For Four awards, meaning that as long as she remains a full-time, first-time college student, she will receive full tuition coverage. The average tuition for one year at UMPI costs $7,884.

The Way It Should Be program also awards For Maine Families packages, aimed at Maine students who do not qualify for the federal Pell grant. For Maine Families awards students at least $3,084 to assist in tuition costs.

Jason Towers, executive director of enrollment management for UMPI and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, noted that UMPI has consistently given hundreds of The Way It Should Be awards to incoming students since the program began in 2017. UMPI has yet to deliver award letters to high school students who have applied for the fall 2020 semester.

While 85 percent of UMPI’s student population receives some form of financial aid, 60 percent are receiving aid that they do not have to pay back, which includes scholarships and grants.

Towers credits The Way It Should Be with growing UMPI’s student retention rates. The number of first-year, full-time students on campus increased 2 percent from 60 percent in fall 2017 to 62 percent in fall 2019.

He said that the program closely aligns with UMPI’s Finish In Four initiative, which has a goal of increasing the number of graduates who earn their degrees in four years.

“The program encourages students to stay in school because if they don’t, they lose access to the financial aid award,” Tower said. “Our main focus is reducing the cost and time associated with college so students can enter the workforce.”

For Morrow, the cost of college tuition became a major reason why she initially decided to join the military. Without a program like The Way It Should Be, she would have taken classes part time through distance learning while primarily focusing on her military duties. The military would have paid for her education, but she likely would have finished her degree in six to eight years.

Now at UMPI, Morrow plans to earn her degree in four years and pursue a career sooner than she might have without her Free For Four award. She also lives with her family at home, which eliminates the room and board fees that come with living on campus.

“I can earn my degree in a shorter time span and I won’t be in debt when I graduate,” Morrow said. “Plus, I’m really close with my family, so being here gives me that support system.”

Going to college close to home has also allowed Morrow to choose a major that she is passionate about. While signing up for the military, Morrow took a career aptitude test that determined mechanics as her military-based career even though she expressed no interest in that field.

“I want to help people,” Morrow said, about why she chose criminal justice.

Morrow’s journey at UMPI comes at a time of increased focus on college affordability. This fall the University of Maine System announced a goal of covering tuition for 1,200 graduating high school seniors from the Class of 2020. UMaine System officials credit increased investment in financial aid systems, a six-year tuition freeze and free and reduced tuition programs at smaller campuses for strengthening their ability to attract and retain more Maine students.

The focus on Maine students, Towers said, comes from increased efforts to connect students with internships in their field of study before their senior year in hopes that they will choose to live and work in the state after college.

“Students who leave the state for college often establish connections in whatever area they’ve chosen and don’t come back,” Towers said. “If we can give students low or no debt and connect them with employers locally and statewide, then we’ll give them more reasons to stay.”

Morrow is not yet sure what area of criminal justice she will pursue after college, but knows she wants to stay in Maine. She feels thankful for the opportunity to explore potential career paths sooner rather than later due to the financial support from The Way It Should Be.

“I think I won’t have the same stress that other students have,” Morrow said. “It’s an amazing program.”