Hundreds of low-income high school students headed for the University of Arizona have a new financial path to help them get there.

An innovative program that can turn $500 in savings into $4,000 in scholarship cash was recently launched in the Tucson area after the federal government kicked in more than $1 million from a fund aimed at helping people escape poverty.

The AZ Earn to Learn program requires applicants to save at least $250 in personal or family income over at least six months before starting classes at the UA.

Once they've saved $500 in a special account, they'll get $4,000 to put toward their education, on top of any other aid or scholarships for which they qualify.

The program is open to students with family incomes of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level - which works out to about $46,000 for a family of four - or to those whose families qualify for a federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

Participants also must complete college readiness training and take workshops on budgeting, saving and financial management.

Arizona State University, based in Tempe, and Flagstaff-based Northern Arizona University also are participating but have somewhat different requirements from the UA.

The federal money - about $1.5 million for all three universities - comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency estimates every tax dollar spent on the program generates $5 in economic benefits through things such as reduced welfare costs and higher taxable earnings.

The universities are matching those dollars to help pay for the program. The deadline to complete applications for the fall 2013 semester is Jan. 31.

Of the 700 students expected to benefit, more than 450 will be UA students, said Kate Hoffman, executive director of Live the Solution, a Tucson-based nonprofit that will run the savings and financial education portions of the program for the universities.

Hoffman, 42, a former financial adviser and mortgage loan officer, was the driving force behind getting the program established in Arizona. She approached the state's universities after learning about the availability of the federal funding at a 2010 conference in Washington, D.C.

This is the first time the federal health department has awarded grants to a state university system to help fund such scholarships, Hoffman said.

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To learn more

For details about the Earn to Learn program, go to or call 1-877-260-7369.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at or at 573-4138.