Katrina Verduzco hadn't thought much about going to college until a representative from the University of Arizona came to talk to her class at Flowing Wells High School. Then everything changed.
After hearing about opportunities at the University, Verduzco became determined to become a Wildcat and the first person in her family to go college.
She also became determined not to burden her family with college expenses, and she spent much of her high school senior year searching for scholarships and financial aid opportunities.
Her search led her to AZ Earn to Learn, an innovative need-based financial aid program launched last year by the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University in partnership with Live the Solution, an Arizona nonprofit.
The unique savings and financial education program was designed to provide financial support for incoming college freshmen from low-income families, while teaching them good savings habits.
The program recently was awarded a second round of funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Assets for Independence program, more than doubling its total funds and its reach to potential participants.
Now funded with $3.47 million in grants, AZ Earn to Learn is expected to be able to serve 1,565 students across Arizona.
"AZ Earn to Learn is an innovative initiative that not only provides critical need-based aid, but also helps students prepare for the financial and academic rigor of university life," said Arizona Board of Regents chairman Rick Myers. "I am extremely proud that our state universities are leading the nation in this unique effort and am thrilled that the program is expanding."
To be eligible for AZ Earn to Learn, students and their families must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Students begin the program with their families as seniors in high school. They are required to save at least $25 a month in a special Individual Development Account for a minimum of six consecutive months, complete financial education classes and receive one-on-one financial coaching and college readiness training.
Once a student enrolls at one of Arizona's three state universities, they qualify to receive $8 for every $1 they saved, up to $4,000 in matching funds – $2,000 from the federal grant and $2,000 from their university of choice. That money can be used for tuition, fees and other approved education-related expenses at one of the three state universities.
The UA will use its share of the second round of funding to extend the program for a second year to existing AZ Earn to Learn scholars at the UA who wish to continue in the program, said Mike Staten, principal investigator on the UA's grant and a professor in the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"We were worried that one year of support might not be enough," said Staten, also executive director of the UA's Take Charge America Institute for Consumer Financial Education and Research.
"The real question is: Can this kind of match savings support, coupled with some University resources, help get students here and keep them here?" Staten said. "We don't just want them to start, we want them to finish, so we decided to focus Project Two funds on offering our Project One participants a second round of support to get them to continue to save."
When AZ Earn to Learn launched with $1.55 million last year, the UA received the largest share of funding – $1 million over five years. In its first year, the University enrolled about 50 students in the program and continues to recruit more.
For Verduzco, AZ Earn to Learn not only helped her pay for her first year of college, it also helped prepare her to manage money on her own.
"Before this program I never really understood anything financial. It's great that they're coaching us to be financially savvy," Verduzco said.
Since enrolling in the program, Verduzco has saved $45 a month and by December will have $500 of her own money set aside. She also has learned a great deal from the program's educational workshops, offered both in person and online.
"It teaches you to be confident about money instead of being scared and not understanding," said Verduzco, who also is an Arizona Assurance scholar. "The program is so supportive, and there's always someone there to answer your questions."