ALMA, Michigan -- The University of Kentucky wants Zakkary Hardyniec to come to school there, not because of his jump shot, but because of the work the Alma College junior is doing on muscle stem cells.
The 21-year-old from Wayne has been to the University of Kentucky for one fellowship. The scientists he has been working with are eager for him to come there for his postgraduate work.
"Alma really opened a lot of doors for me to do some really good research," Hardyniec said recently.
Alma officials want more of the school's students to have the same type of opportunities that Hardyniec and others who have traveled the globe doing internships have had, but realize there is a big barrier to that -- money.
That's why the private college, located about 45 minutes north of Lansing, will make all of its students eligible for a new $2,500 stipend to pursue an internship, a summer research project or some other off-campus study option.
The stipend -- likely to be handed out in a student's junior year -- is one part of a new program called the Alma Commitment.
The centerpiece of that program is a promise from the college to pay the cost of completing a degree for any student who meets the school's requirements but fails to graduate within four years.
The Alma Commitment goes into effect in fall 2013 and is built around protecting students from massive college debt while increasing their chances at good learning situations.
"We want to enable our students to have an internship or other meaningful experience," said Alma President Jeff Abernathy. "But we know that for many of them, they can't, because they can't afford to not work during the summer because they need that money to help pay for school."
Alma had 1,464 students enroll last fall, with 29% of them qualifying for Pell Grants, which are awarded to lower-income students. Twelve percent of the students on campus are minorities and nearly 40% are first-generation students.
About 80% of Alma students graduate within four years, officials said. That compares with a national average of 31% for public institutions and 52% for private schools, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education.
The Alma Commitment is not a unique program nationally, but very few places do it, Alma leaders said.
"We believe that graduating in five years instead of four years is more than just having to pay additional tuition and housing costs," Abernathy said. "It's also an opportunity cost. Not only are you paying more if you stay that additional year, you're also losing out on an opportunity to start earning and to start paying off debt. It will put those students ahead a year or two of their peers."
The cost of higher education has been a hot topic in recent years as prices at private and public colleges and universities continue to climb, even as experts say advanced degrees are more necessary to landing a job.
In Michigan, 62% of students leave a private or public college with debt. The average debt for graduates in 2011, the latest numbers that are available, is $27,451.
Although Alma has a higher percentage of students who graduate with debt -- 75% of its 2011 graduates owed some sort of federal student loan debt -- the average debt, at $21,907, is several thousand dollars lower. That's despite Alma's much higher tuition.
Tuition for 2012-13 is $30,700 a year, putting Alma in the top 10 of Michigan's private colleges, data submitted to the federal government show. That's nearly triple the average tuition at a Michigan public university.
Alma administrators say they balance those costs with generous financial aid, but also say that's why the Alma Commitment is a big deal.
In order to qualify for it, students have to follow Alma's path, but officials said there's flexibility in it. They also are working to beef up classes offered in the spring term, which runs at the end of the traditional school year, to make sure students can get through the needed classes.
For example, by the end of a student's freshman year, he or she will have to declare a major. One of the choices is undecided but on track for graduation. By the second year, a plan for graduation has to be submitted.
The college said it is also beefing up its advising -- making sure faculty and staff are involved early and often with students as they move through their schooling.
Officials say they are still working out the bugs in some programs. Student teaching, for example, tends to run long because of student teaching requirements. Officials said they still are determining how to handle those classes.
Students also will have access to a number of planning conferences and workshops designed to help in areas such as financial management, developing résumés, finding internships and related topics.
Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or firstname.lastname@example.org