The University of Virginia’s College at Wise — the coalfield region’s only four-year college — will soon offer free education to students of families that earn $40,000 or less, the college announced Wednesday.

UVa-Wise Within Reach starts in the fall of 2020 and is only available to full-time, degree-seeking students from Virginia who are eligible to receive in-state tuition.

The college, in far Southwest Virginia, will be one of a handful of colleges nationwide to begin offering degrees to in-state students at no cost. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville will begin a similar program in the fall of 2020.

“The program lets us help Virginia families realize the dream of a college degree is within reach,” UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry said in a news release Wednesday. “We know families often face a steep financial burden when the time comes to send their children to college. We hope the program will alleviate some of the worry and financial stress families feel during what is normally a pivotal and exciting time for students and parents.”

The college serves many first-generation students, and more than 80 percent of its students receive federal and state financial aid. The release said UVa-Wise will rethink the way it combines state and federal financial aid with private scholarships to make the UVa-Wise Within Reach program work.

“We listened to our students and their families talk about the heavy cost of attending college,” Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Chris Dearth said. “We are restructuring our state, federal and institutional financial aid in innovative ways to meet the needs. My staff is excited to begin this work to help many Virginia families with an extra boost.”

Dearth said the program will allow qualified students to earn a bachelor’s degree without debt.

There’s no limit to the number of students who can participate in the program, college spokeswoman Kathy Still confirmed. Currently, about 35 percent of the student population would be eligible to participate.

“Earning a degree with no debt is truly liberating for our graduates,” Dearth said. “It gives them the financial freedom to pursue a career or to attend graduate or professional school without the worry of crippling student loan debt.”

To qualify for free tuition, Virginia students must complete federal student aid forms by Feb. 15 and be admitted to the college by the same date, the release states. Students who qualify for additional grants or scholarships will have those funds added to the financial aid award up to, but not exceeding, the cost of attendance. Students must qualify for the program each of the four years of enrollment and must meet minimum academic requirements.

“Senior leadership has looked at the program from all angles,” Henry said.

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