AUSTIN — Last year, The Hormel Foundation electrified this 25,000-population city with a promise: All graduates from Austin public and private schools would be eligible for free rides to Riverland Community College.  

This week they began arriving on campus.

For Marrisa McConnell, a 2019 Pacelli High School graduate, the significance of the scholarship really didn't hit home until she saw the numbers: The savings in tuition and books for her would amount to $7,000 this year.

In all, McConnell could save as much as $14,000 while completing one of Riverland's two-year programs.

"I didn't realize how great the scholarship program was going to be until I saw the financial (details)," McConnell said. 

McConnell, 18, belongs to the first cohort of 109 Austin graduates to arrive at Riverland this week to begin taking classes for free, thanks to the Austin Assurance Scholarship program.

Riverland officials say the number of scholarship recipients is likely to rise as students continue to register for classes through next week.

Quincy Muzik, a 2019 Austin High School graduate, is also attending Riverland on the scholarship. He said the scholarship translates into less stress for college students, particularly at a time when many are graduating from college with huge debt loads. 

"That I can go to college for free," Muzik said. "That doesn't really happen a lot. It makes student loans and debts a lot less to worry about."  

Officials talk about the program as a way of "planting seeds" that will serve both students and the community. 

The scholarship removes cost barriers, nudging Austin high school graduates to take a second-look at college. It also encourages them to sink deeper roots in the community through its requirements for volunteer service. 

This year's class was required to document 12.5 hours of volunteer time. The requirement rises to 25 hours next year and 50 hours in 2021.

"I think the goal was to get more of the high school graduates to stay local," said Amanda Mathews, Riverland director of advising services. "The idea was to get them to know people by doing volunteer hours, to get to know people in the community." 

Even if students should leave the Austin area to get their bachelor's degree at a four-year university, their experiences, officials hope, will connect them to the community.  

The program was designed to open the door as wide as possible to college by offering multiple avenues in which graduating high school seniors could qualify for the scholarship.

Other requirements include that students have a minimum 2.5 grade point average; or have a minimum ACT score of 18; or be a graduate of Riverland's summer prep academy.

A large percentage of Riverland students are first-generation students. Austin is also a diverse school district where half the student body is minority. Such students are often not as likely to consider a college education and struggle when they get there, surveys have found. 

Officials say it's too early to say what percentage of Austin students attending Riverland this fall are there primarily because of the scholarship. But they believe it is having an impact. 

"I think part of the reason that they are offering this is access," said Katelyn Flatness, Riverland's academic adviser for The Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarship. "Students can come to college that wouldn't have the opportunity before."

The goal is not only to attract students to the Riverland campus, but to get them to complete a two-year program once they get there.

To help them along the way, Flatness serves as an adviser to the scholarship students, keeping in touch and helping them stay on track academically. Half of her salary is funded by the Hormel Foundation, which also funds the scholarship.

It's uncertain how much the program will cost The Hormel Foundation. A Hormel official said the foundation is not releasing any cost figures at the moment. 

"We don't know how many students will take advantage of it," said Sheri Dankert, associative secretary treasurer for the scholarship.

McConnell said many of her Pacelli peers talked about going away to a university. Still, of the 13 students who graduated from Pacelli last spring, eight of them enrolled at Riverland, an official said.

A free education is hard to pass up, Muzik said.

"When you get your first two years for free and you don't have to pay anything, you've got to take it," he said. 

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