JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Edward Waters College is the second four-year institution in the nation to offer a College Promise Program that will give 100 local graduating high school students a tuition-free college education.
The program is a win for both the college and its students, officials said.
The cost of a college education prevents many from going.
"In my family, there's a lot who didn't go [to college] because they were worried about it [tuition]. They didn't have anyone backing them up,” said EWC student Razzi Smith.
And those who do attend, like Smith, often leave in deep debt.
"I have a lot of loans I have to pay back,” said Smith, who owes tens of thousands of dollars.
State Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, is an EWC alum and is still paying off student debt 20 years after graduating.
"Personally, I'm sitting on about $28,000 from my undergrad and graduate degrees,” Davis said.
The average cost for a four-year degree at EWC is $54,000. With a full Pell Grant and other federal student assistance grants, there is a $3,500 gap left unpaid for students.
EWC was able to get a $356,000 state grant to fill that gap, making eligible students' college tuition-free through the College Promise Program.
High school students must be local -- which could include Duval, Nassau, Putnam, St. Johns and Baker counties -- to be eligible and will have to apply to attend EWC. The admissions staff will choose 100 students who fit the financial need for the program, and they will receive free tuition to EWC, free bus passes and academic counseling. But they will have to maintain a certain GPA to stay in the program.
Joy Miller, who is graduating at the top of her class at EWC, will be debt free thanks to a full-ride scholarship, but financial struggles almost kept her from attending college.
"My parents are not able to financially support me,” Miller said. "I thank God every day I was able to do this. It makes moving forward so much easier."
The senior said she's also watched her friends who weren't blessed with scholarships struggle.
"I look at my peers and I literally have seen my friends break down in tears having to pay this back,” Miller said.
Smith and Miller said this will not only provide more opportunities to high school seniors who can't afford college but will attract more students to EWC, which is a win-win for the whole community.