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Finley: ‘Old college try’ tougher for many

March 23, 2021

The Detroit News

By Nolan Finley

College was an after-thought for me. I went through high school expecting to be drafted, and when the Vietnam War ended before graduation I had to scramble.

I had a factory job with good pay and flexible hours. But the work was backbreaking, and not what I wanted to do for the next 40 years

And yet I was not prepared for college. Lousy grades and poor academic skills. Short on money. No one in my family with college experience to turn to for advice.

I ended up at Schoolcraft Community College not as a last resort, but as the only option.

Thirteen years later I completed my college education with a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University.

It was a long slog, hampered by career and family responsibilities and a nagging foreign language requirement. But I finally got the diploma.

The college experience isn’t the same for everyone. Keep that in mind when looking at the report card on the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Promise programs.

Detroit Promise provides free college tuition to graduates of the city’s high schools. A companion program offers them a $50 monthly stipend and a free coach to help navigate higher education.

The results on paper seem disappointing. Only 10% of the 539 Detroit Promise students earned associate’s degrees or certificates in three years of schooling. You could declare that a poor return on a $2.8 million a year investment.

But graduation rates don’t tell the whole story.

“The fact that kids with these challenges haven’t graduated yet isn’t surprising,” says Sandy Baruah, CEO of the chamber. “Thirty percent of the kids are still enrolled after three years. They haven’t dropped out — they’re still banging away at it.”

The study from the research group MDRC identified the major obstacles as mostly poverty related, as well as poor academic preparation in high school.

The chamber is learning a lesson others advocating for free college should heed — it isn’t all about the money. Motivation and preparation are big factors as well.

Three-quarters of the students in the Detroit Promise program are unprepared for the academic rigors of college and need remedial help. That could set them back a frustrating year or more.

Adding college coaches to the program was a smart move. Baruah notes, however, the coaches spend a good deal of time helping solve issues such as transportation, food and housing.

These students also need academic tutors, particularly in the first year, when up to 40% of college students drop out.

They also need a vision of where a college education will take them.

More internships could improve the success rate by clearly linking their studies to future careers. Earn-while-you-learn programs could provide an incentive to stay in school.

I’m not convinced that making college totally free is the best approach. The first tuition check I wrote was a light bulb moment. It attached a tangible value to education. If I continued my high school pattern of skipping class and shirking assignments, it would be my money wasted.

It’s not a bad idea to ask students to be financially invested in their own education, no matter how small the amount, while helping them with jobs and other resources.

College as a four-year, ivy-covered idyll of intellectual salons and great parties, followed by a couple of years of grad school, is the reality for some students.

But for the 87% of college students who commute to classes while working and balancing the demands of survival, it’s a daunting challenge. The goal for most is to get the degree and get a better job.

Over those 13 years, I never quit college. By the time I finished,  I was already established in my career, had three kids and a mortgage, and the last thing I wanted was another tuition bill and a three-night-a-week class. Still, I wanted that diploma.

I suspect a lot of the Detroit Promise students want the same thing. Helping them cope with an experience that won’t look much like the one they see in the movies will give them a better shot at success.

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