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Jacques: Translate ‘Free College’ Into More Graduates

October 29, 2019

The Detroit News

Ingrid Jacques 

Wayne State University’s recent announcement that it will offer free tuition to Detroit freshmen is no doubt welcome news to students and families throughout the city.

Yet simply growing enrollment does not necessarily translate to more students with degrees.

Cost is certainly a barrier for many low-income students. But it’s not the only one.

Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent for the Detroit Regional Chamber, understands the roadblocks facing Detroit youths. Since 2013, the chamber has administered the Detroit Promise program that offers taxpayer-funded scholarships to city high school graduates for community college. The program also runs a separate four-year college scholarship. More than 3,500 students have participated to date.

When it got off the ground, the program had a difficult time attracting students to apply, and ones that participated didn’t often stick around for a second year.

Those numbers are starting to improve, as the chamber has begun matching students with campus coaches and other assistance. Handel says 67% of four-year students are still enrolled by the third year. Plus, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has hired 20 college transition advisers, which he says is hugely helpful.

The chamber, along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and business leaders, is pushing for 60% of residents to have a post-high school degree or certification. The state average is currently about 45%, but in Detroit it’s lower.

“There is more awareness around opportunities for higher ed,” Handel says. “It helps us to our ultimate goal of increasing the number of individuals with a post-secondary degree.”

And it seems locally-run programs like Detroit Promise are best suited to understand the needs of students in their communities. That’s something for the governor, who has called for more intervention at the state level, to consider.

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