The University of Baltimore will offer free tuition to college students in their final semester if they can finish their degrees in four years, the school announced Tuesday.
The unusual break could boost the college's flagging graduation rates and reduce student debt loads.
Dubbed "Finish4Free," the deal is to be offered to this fall's freshmen when they reach their senior year, school officials said. They were unsure how much it would cost the university. In-state students now pay about $3,300 in tuition each semester; out-of-state students pay $9,000.
The university's undergraduate program, which began admitting freshmen in 2007 as it converted from a transfer school for juniors and seniors to a full, four-year college, has struggled to graduate its students on time. The current four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen is 8 percent, second-lowest in the University System of Maryland.
"Most of our students are first-time students, they're economically challenged students and they're coming from families that don't have a history of higher education," said university President Robert L. Bogomolny. "So, for them, persistence is more complex."
The state university system is watching to see whether the offer should be replicated at other colleges.
Bogomolny said the break is not a direct response to the university's declining four-year graduation rate, which has dropped from 18 percent for the freshman class that entered in 2007. But he said he hopes it will help motivate students to finish more quickly, lighten their debt load upon graduation and induce more students to apply.
Bogomolny, who plans to retire at the end of the school year, said a member of his staff came up with "this idea about, 'Why don't we reward students?'"
To qualify, students must accept any financial aid that they are offered. Bogomolny said the break should pay for itself because the university ends up using more resources on students who stay in college for more than four years and because the deal could lead to a rise in enrollment.
School officials do not yet know how many freshmen will enroll in the fall. The current freshman class has 583 students.
Amid the slow economic recovery, colleges around the country have experimented with ways to encourage students to graduate in four years and save costs, with some success, according to Dominique Raymond, a vice president at the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Complete College America.
"Finishing on time matters because the longer you take, the less likely you are to graduate, because life gets in the way," Raymond said. Students who go to college part time have only about a 10 percent chance of ever finishing, she said.
Students at Indiana University are spared tuition increases if they graduate in four years. At the University of Buffalo and Randolph-Macon College, students can have their tuition waived if they take more than four years to graduate.
The U.S. Department of Education tracks six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time freshmen, But Raymond said that no longer reflects the majority of students in colleges nationwide.
Only a quarter of students in U.S. colleges now fall into the "traditional" category, she said. Less is known about how quickly nontraditional students — those who transfer to another institution, drop out and return, or start part time — complete college.
The state university system's aggregate four-year graduation rate is 41 percent, according to the system. Sixty-two percent finish in six years.
The data takes into account only those students who remain at their institutions throughout their undergraduate careers. The percentages improve slightly when transfers within the system are included.
Only 3 percent of students who have not graduated after six years remained enrolled.
Within the state system, only Coppin State University has a lower four-year graduation rate than the University of Baltimore, at 5 percent.
Four-year graduation rates at the flagship University of Maryland, College Park have risen in the past decade from less than half to 65 percent, the highest in the state. The six-year graduation rate at College Park is 82 percent.
Joann Boughman, vice chancellor of the University System of Maryland for student affairs, said the system is working to get students to graduate more quickly and help those who are close to the finish line. Proposals include scholarships that target those who dropped out close to graduation.
"We also recognize that some of our campuses are taking on higher-risk students from the get-go and UB is one of those," Boughman said. "It is really poignant when a student has to [drop] out because they can't afford to stay in school."
University graduation rates
The following are four-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time freshmen entering in fall 2009 at University System of Maryland institutions. Figures are for students who have remained at the same university where they began.
University System of Maryland average: 41 percent
Bowie State University: 11 percent
Coppin State University: 5 percent
Frostburg State University: 21 percent
*Morgan State University: 12 percent
Salisbury University: 45 percent
Towson University: 42 percent
University of Baltimore: 8 percent
University of Maryland, Baltimore County: 33 percent
University of Maryland, College Park: 65 percent
University of Maryland, Eastern Shore: 14 percent
*Morgan, a public university, is not part of the University System of Maryland. Its data are from the class that entered in fall 2008, the latest available from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Source: University System of Maryland