Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano announced Friday that the university would pay tuition for any incoming student whose household income is less than $60,000.
The Aggie Assurance Program will also be offered retroactively to students who began their freshman year this fall. It will cover state-mandated, designated and differential tuition, but not fees, books or boarding.
The university estimates tuition is about $5,000 per student for the 2008-09 year. Officials said some students who have already paid tuition will receive refund checks from the school's financial aid office. The cost of attending A&M is about $20,000 per year for in-state residents.
More than 1,500 current freshmen will have their tuition paid for over the next four years, and officials estimate that more than 5,200 students will be affected once the program is fully implemented. A&M currently has about 8,100 freshmen and more than 48,000 total students.
"Despite our efforts to keep tuition increases as low as possible, many of our students find it difficult to pay for college without mounting significant amounts of debt in the form of student loans," Murano said. "Today, we will offer these scholarships retroactively to our freshmen in the Class of 2012, which will provide much-needed relief to our middle-income students and their families now and into the future."
Students at A&M will be eligible for their first four years of school if they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Scholarships and Financial Aid annually.
Any aid that the student already receives from the school or from outside sources will count toward the fund, and the university will make up the difference.
The program will increase the school's financial aid spending by about $3.3 million once it is fully implemented, university officials estimated.
Murano announced the plan during the school's annual academic convocation, which formally recognizes the beginning of the school year. The ceremony was originally scheduled for Sept. 12 but was pushed back because of Hurricane Ike.
This year's event also marked the formal installation of the Cuban-born Murano as president of the university. She was appointed to the position in January and is the first woman and Hispanic to be president of A&M.
A&M leaders presented Murano with various symbolic gifts for her installation, and a student group performed the famous Cuban song Guantanamera as Murano grinned widely and bobbed her head.
"You have to recognize that anything is possible," Murano said. "Never would anyone have imagined that we would be playing Guantanamera at an academic convocation at Texas A&M University."
But Murano paid little attention to the historic significance of her being installed as president of a school known for its male-only roots and demographically homogenous reputation. She instead focused on the progress she said the university still needs to make.
"The Class of 2012 includes the highest number of Hispanic and African-American freshmen in the university's history -- a 16 percent increase over last year," she said. "In addition, about 25 percent of the freshman class consists of first-generation college students. I am proud of the strides we have made ... but frankly, we're not yet where we need or want to be."
She said the school is pursuing state funding for programs to promote the benefits of college degrees in major urban and remote rural areas and partner with high schools to help students apply and find funding to study at A&M.
"We must find more ways to reach cohorts of students who previously have had little access to higher education," she said.
The tuition program is aimed more at middle-income students because many lower-income students already receive financial aid.
A&M officials said they knew of some schools that provide tuition for students whose families make up to $40,000, but said they believe the program is unprecedented for a school of A&M's size and stature. Harvard University, which is a private school, announced in 2006 that it would not expect students from families with incomes under $60,000 to contribute to the cost of their education at the school.