By SAM INGLOT
Capital News Service
LANSING—High school students in some of Michigan’s most impoverished communities may soon have access to free college tuition.
“Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to escaping the cycle of poverty,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of Michigan College Access Network, a key group responsible for the program.
In what are called “Promise Zones,” the Michigan College Access Network is fostering public and private partnerships to create scholarships for any student who graduates from a high school in a designated zone, Johnson said.
The program has three steps, said Chuck Wilbur, a consultant with Public Policy Associates, which works with Michigan College Access Network. Wilbur was also a senior policy advisor for former Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Any student seeking the scholarship must first apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in order to be eligible for a Pell Grant, which is a financial needs-based grant program. Wilbur said the promise money would fill the gap between tuition costs and the Pell grant.
Public funding comes from property tax revenue through the state education tax, which is a 6-mil tax on almost all buildings in the state. Each zone has been designated as a Tax Increment Financing District, said Wilbur, meaning that certain districts within the zones can capture any growth in the tax and use it toward the scholarship fund. As for private funding, Wilbur said donations of any size will be put into the fund.
Johnson said the program goal is to replicate the Kalamazoo Promise, a program started by wealthy, anonymous donors in Kalamazoo that offers free college tuition to any high school graduate from the school district. Johnson said the program has helped high school students since the graduating classes of 2006 attain college degrees.
The Promise Zone initiative was created in the final months of Granholm’s tenure as governor in 2009 and called for ten community zones to be created.
Michigan College Access Network is working with ten communities to establish funding programs: Baldwin, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Hazel Park, Jackson, Lansing, Pontiac, Saginaw and the Muskegon region. The communities were selected after a statewide application process.
Promise Zone programs are designed to help students who live in some of the most poverty-ridden areas of the state. According to the online Michigan Dashboard, implemented by Gov. Rick Snyder, 23 percent of Michigan children live in poverty.
The longer a child lives in an impoverished neighborhood, the greater the risk that they won’t graduate from high school, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Kalamazoo Promise and how a laser-like focus on post-secondary educational achievement is a way to lift an entire community out of poverty,” Johnson said.
For students living in poverty, it is important to show them that they have a way out if they graduate, said Douglas Roberts, director for the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research and former state treasurer of Michigan.
“Programs like the Kalamazoo Promise are one of the best things that education can do by encouraging students to graduate,” he said. “It basically said to people for the first time that you could afford to go someplace but you have to put the effort in to at least getting out of here.”
Roberts said the Kalamazoo Promise eliminated a lot of red tape in receiving scholarship money. Johnson said the Promise Zones are attempting to do the same thing.
She said the programs will take normal scholarship limitations like academic based awards and poverty levels and “throw them out the window,” by making scholarships available to all students in the area.
“With the exception of Grand Rapids and Flint, we pretty much have every other high-poverty, urban city covered,” Johnson said.
Wibur said Grand Rapids did not apply for the program and Flint is on a waiting list.
Baldwin, Benton Harbor and Pontiac already have Promise Zone programs underway and six of the other areas may have programs ready for the 2012 graduating class. If Detroit’s program starts next year, it could be the largest promise initiative in the country, said Wilbur.
Johnson and Roberts both agree that free college tuition will not only help students but the communities as well by encouraging people to move into the cities and invest.
Johnson and Wilbur said Snyder officially endorsed the Promise Zone idea when he announced his Education Achievement System program earlier this year. The program will take control of the state’s lowest 5 percent of performing schools to bolster test scores and solve financial problems.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By SAM INGLOT