A Fast Track, With No Debt: Why Donors Are Excited About This Innovative College Program

photo:   Rawpixel.com /shutterstock

photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

When Senator Bernie Sanders proposed free college as a candidate in the last presidential election, many people dismissed the idea as a pipe dream. But in Florida, it’s a reality that philanthropists and nonprofit officials say can and should be replicated nationwide.

Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton operates a public high school on its campus where students can earn dual high school and undergraduate degrees in four years. Unlike many university graduates saddled with crushing student loan debt, the 140 students admitted each year to FAU High School, as the program is called, receive free tuition and books, graduating debt free.

The university offers the program to academically gifted high school students, and competition for the 140 open spots each year is fierce, attracting more than 700 applicants annually. More than half of former FAU High students—like Mahalia Sanon who was recently accepted into pharmacy school—enter advanced-degree programs.

To expand the dual degree program, FAU High recently started raising money. A growing number of individual donors and grant makers are excited about its potential. One wealthy father who requested anonymity because his daughter attends FAU High and he wants to shield her from undue attention, made a substantial gift because he’s excited about the potential of the dual degree program to “forever change the face of public education.”

The program, in which 35 percent of the students are on free or reduced-cost meals, “is a true meritocracy,” he said, which he found more attractive than the private boarding schools he and his daughter had considered. “I don’t want her around rich, spoiled kids going to Mustique on spring break,” he said. “I want the real world.”

Furthermore, the father said, the program is a win-win-win for students, public education, and Florida Atlantic University because the public institution is now able to attract the best and brightest high school students in the state who also shine as university students. That’s what attracted his daughter, being with other high-performing students, he said. And, when these students go on to successful careers, he added, they’re likely to have a strong affinity for the university and support it financially.

Foundation grant makers and corporate donors are just as excited as the father about supporting FAU High, said Mickey Zitzman, Florida Atlantic University’s director of development who was hired six months ago. To further enhance the dual degree program and the building where it is housed, Florida Atlantic has just started a $41.5 million campaign, and given 50 or 60 tours to foundation directors, corporate executives, and potential donors. “Everyone who has visited says, ‘This is amazing, how can I help, and how can we replicate this?’” he said.

To date, the new campaign has raised $2.5 million, mostly from parents of students. 

In another twist, Florida Atlantic receives $7,000 per year for each student admitted to FAU High School from state revenues. Families of the students admitted to the program also pay an annual $500 “activity fee” to cover incidental costs like extracurricular sports and field trips.

Students accepted to FAU High spend their first academic year in the building reserved for them on the university campus. Over the next three years, they mix with other university students as they attend college courses. FAU High students, who live at home with their families during the four-year program, commute from as much as an hour each way to participate. 

While some students complete both high school and college in four years, others take a little longer with the vast majority obtaining their undergraduate degree by age 19.

FAU High, supporters say, is a solution for the escalating problem of student-loan debt in higher education. According to statistics published by Forbes this year, more than 44 million student loan borrowers owe some $1.4 trillion. Last year’s college graduates owed an average of $37,172 in student debt.   

In higher education, “access and affordability is the greatest challenge this nation is facing,” said Joel Herbst, Florida Atlantic University’s assistant dean of education who has taken a lead role in running and expanding FAU High.  

While FAU High School has drawn attention from other universities in the United States and abroad, few institutions have yet to replicate the program, although East Carolina University started its own dual degree program this year, after visiting Florida Atlantic.

“More colleges should adopt this approach,” Herbst said. “Every university has empty seats in its classrooms.”