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It’s impossible to deny the steep cost of a college education – even the price of one class, not to mention the cost of books and supplies, can be high enough to discourage individuals who have the desire to learn.

What if there was a way to eliminate the financial burden of higher education, allowing students to fully focus on learning their chosen field? It may sound too good to be true, but that is exactly what Upskill NWA is offering the Northwest Arkansas community.

Upskill NWA offers no-cost services – including tuition, books, class equipment, licensing exam fees and other historical barriers – to students who are pursuing degrees and certifications in health care. The program includes eight career paths: licensed practical nurse, registered nurse, certified emergency medical technician, respiratory therapist, certified surgical technologist, physical therapy assistant, radiologic imaging sciences and health information management.

“Upskill” refers to the process of expanding or learning one’s set of professional skills, likely giving themselves an advantage in the job market. Upskill NWA’s partnership with credible academic institutions ensures participants are upskilling with the best information the region has to offer. Depending on which field of study students choose, they will attend classes at Northwest Technical Institute, NorthWest Arkansas Community College or University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest. They will take two to four classes each semester. Some certifications can be completed in six months, while others may take up to three years. Whichever program a student chooses, Upskill NWA has partnered with five local hospitals to provide job placements for all graduates.

Being able to provide no-cost education is an ambitious goal, and it wouldn’t be possible without the support and contributions from multiple entities. The Excellerate Foundation and Walton Family Foundation have committed $3 million to Upskill NWA during its first three years as it prepares the region’s residents for skilled positions in high-demand industries.

According to Carol Silva Moralez, President and CEO of Upskill NWA, almost 1,000 health care openings in Northwest Arkansas remain unfilled each year. Upskill NWA is dedicated to developing qualified candidates to fill those roles. Prior to being accepted into the program, there are some prerequisites that applicants must meet. Among those are that they must be a resident of Benton, Madison or Washington counties; must not have previously earned an associate’s degree or higher; and must be accepted for enrollment by one of Upskill’s educational partners. Those interested in applying should review the full list of requirements

Upskill NWA aims to alleviate the financial burden that usually accompanies degree-seeking programs, and they also hope to help a population that has historically struggled to join a skilled workforce – including those with a criminal record. If the licensing board for the chosen career of someone with a record finds them eligible after reviewing their history, they are a candidate for Upskill NWA. 

After candidates fill out Upskill NWA’s online application, they will be scheduled to meet with a career navigator to interview for the program. If selected, applicants will work closely with their career navigator for the duration of their education; these navigators serve as mentors for students to help them through the stages of schooling and job seeking.

As Tess Luerssen, a NWACC nursing student receiving funding and mentorship through Upskill NWA, describes it, “Upskill has provided seminars that have helped build my resume and my interviewing skills.”   

This innovative program was modeled after Texas’ highly successful Project QUEST, which has now been active for 30 years. Upskill NWA officially launched in July 2021, and those interested can apply anytime on their website at