When you ask people about Arizona Assurance, they use words like "godsend," "great" and "amazing."

Students in the public-private financial aid program at the University of Arizona have higher success rates and are on track to graduate debt-free.

But the young program's early success and rapid growth are jeopardizing its future, and the UA must scale it back while trying to raise funds to support it.

Why it's needed

Only about 19 percent of Arizona's low-income students go on to higher education, compared with about 27 percent of low-income students nationwide.

At Catalina Magnet High School in Tucson, most students who go to college are the first from their families to do so. And 35 of the 45 former Catalina students who enrolled at the UA last year were Arizona Assurance scholars, said high school counselor Mark Hanna.

Without it, those students might have attended community college or might not have gone to college at all, he said.

"If you want to go to the UA and your family income is under $42,400 and you're Pell-grant eligible, then the UA will do its best to make up all the rest," Hanna told a packed audience at a recent college night presentation. For students who meet those criteria, the program covers tuition, fees, books, and room and board using funding from federal grants, scholarships, work programs, donations and tuition revenue.

"You'll come out with no loans if you go in with this," Hanna told the crowd. "It's an awesome, awesome program."

Elisa Meza is an Arizona Assurance scholar who has become a spokeswoman for the program in addition to her involvement in student government and writing for the college newspaper.

The program afforded her the privilege of attending college, she said. Without it, "I'd probably be a part-time student and probably have two jobs to make as much money as possible."

The aspiring teacher said it's important to graduate debt-free, especially if she decides to someday borrow money to go to grad school.

Besides money, students get extra support from mentors and counselors. They have better grades and less academic probation than peers who are not in the program.

"The promise of access isn't any good if we don't get these students to graduation," said Keith Humphrey, UA assistant vice president.

The first Assurance scholars are now juniors, and Humphrey predicts a four-year graduation rate of around 65 percent. In comparison, the six-year graduation rate for all students is 58 percent.

The program motivates students to finish on time because it's good only for four years. If they need a fifth year to graduate, they have to figure out how to pay for it.

So what's the problem?

Arizona Assurance has grown. Fast.

The recession has slowed fund-raising and increased the number of needy students, said UA Vice President Melissa Vito.

Since it was first offered in 2008, it has nearly doubled in size. This year's freshman cohort has 1,100 students.

The UA has raised money for Arizona Assurance, but not enough to sustain the big increases in student participation.

The cost to the UA also changes when tuition goes up and federal Pell grants don't. Last year the average cost per student was about $3,500, Humphrey said. This year it's about $4,500.

What's next?

For next year's freshman class, the UA will reduce the number of Arizona Assurance scholars and change some of the criteria for qualifying.

The class will be limited to about 650 students, and to be eligible they must apply early for admission to the UA. They also must have a high school grade-point average of 3.0 or better - a higher standard than the current criteria, which is just admission to the UA.

The UA is raising money for a $100 million endowment that would pay out $4 million a year, Humphrey said. He hopes donors will line up when they see the early good results of the program and realize that most of these students will stay in the Arizona work force.

Donate and get info

• Get information about qualifying for Arizona Assurance at assurance.arizona.edu

• Donate to Arizona Assurance at uafoundation.org

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.