Tina Smets and family
Tina Smets will attend University of Nebraska-Kearney tuition-free because of the Nebraska Promise. She credits her family as her biggest supporters including her husband, Aaron, and children, Missy,4, Justin, 10, and Jordan, 6, pictured from left to right. Photo by Brandi Josjor Photography

Mariana Medina-Santos, 21, is a first-generation college student and one of the first Nebraska Promise recipients who will study tuition-free at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.

Three months after the University of Nebraska announced free tuition for Nebraskans whose families make less than $60,000 per year or are Pell Grant eligible, about 1,000 people have applied, according to NU President Ted Carter.

“The Nebraska Promise will make a huge difference in my life because I’m paying for college on my own,” said Medina-Santos, who is from Columbus and works as a teaching assistant. “I’m very grateful to have the Nebraska Promise so I won’t have much student loans to pay off once I graduate.”

NU was in the midst of developing a five-year plan in March, with objectives ranging from increasing enrollment, graduation rates and affordability. Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a 5% decrease in NU applications from last year, Carter realized it was time to put that plan into action.

“We believe a lot of students were starting to wonder about the value of education and if it was right for them in the middle of all of this,” Carter said in an interview. “We had in our mind that we wanted to make our academic programs affordable and accessible to as many students as possible.”

Carter announced the Nebraska Promise program on April 17. The Nebraska Promise covers undergraduate tuition at the University of Nebraska’s four campuses and its two-year technical college.

Students must be Nebraska residents, enroll in at least 12 credit hours each semester and maintain a 2.5 GPA to maintain Nebraska Promise benefits. The Nebraska Promise will cover up to 30 credit hours per academic year. It does not cover any additional costs, such as fees, books or room and board. 

In another effort to make university more affordable, tuition rates across the NU system will also be frozen in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.

Collegebound Nebraska, Nebraska’s previous need-based financial aid, helped nearly 3,000 Pell-eligible students attend college. Nebraska Promise will cover an additional 1,000 students, or about 25% more. Many students eligible for Nebraska Promise may not be Pell-eligible, but their family income is below $60,000, which is the median family income in Nebraska. Funds are available on a “first come, first served” basis according to University of Nebraska’s website.

Carter said providing affordable education to all is part of NU’s principles as a land-grant institution. 

“The value of higher education is the path to quality jobs and the workforce. This is part of the economic engine that the University of Nebraska is for the entire state,” Carter said. “Without the talented students coming it certainly gets disrupted.”

Tina Smets, 31, who is from Kearney, read an article about Nebraska Promise on her Facebook feed, prompting her to apply.

“I knew I was wanting to go back to school sometime and it just seemed perfect,” she said. “I actually started the application that night.”

The mother of three and waitress at the Alley Rose restaurant in Kearney will study business administration in the fall at University of Nebraska-Kearney. Smets said the program will help her achieve her goals without putting a financial strain on her family.

“I’m mostly excited for the new challenge this semester,” she said. “For something different and meaningful.”

thumbnail Image 201x300 - First recipients of Nebraska Promise thankful for free tuition
Mariana Medina-Santos, 21, will study elementary education at the University of Nebraska-Kearney with assistance from Nebraska Promise. Photo Courtesy of Mariana Medina-Santos

Medina-Santos will study elementary education next fall and interact in classrooms through the University of Nebraska-Kearney’s early childhood inclusive teaching program. She has previously worked as a teaching assistant in her hometown of Columbus and aspires to become a first grade or kindergarten teacher.

“I look forward to making my family proud,” she said. “I also look forward to learning so much more.”

Nebraska Promise applicants are required to complete their FAFSA by June 1 and the financial aid process by July 1 prior to fall enrollment. Qualification details for the Nebraska Promise can be found on the University of Nebraska’s website.

Madeleine Grant is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism. She enjoys reading, writing and travel. Madeleine is from Illinois and aspires to become a professional journalist or editor.