Funding the Detroit Promise

Ben Goldstein on Thursday, July 6, 2017 at 12:00:00 am
Image courtesy of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce

 The ongoing economic recovery of Detroit has produced some real success stories. Since filing for municipal bankruptcy back in 2013, Motor City has enjoyed a solid comeback, accompanied by a building boom in its downtown core.

But, as is the case in much of the country, the recovery in Detroit has been markedly uneven. Since 2007, employment for suburban residents has increased by more than 16 percent, while at the same time falling by 35 percent for the city’s urbanites, according to data from City Lab.

At the Detroit Regional Chamber, Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent programs, wants to attack this inequality by its roots—by providing low-income students at Detroit public highs schools with funding to attend community college, tuition free.

“There’s this big economic revitalization going on, and a lot of these new jobs demand a highly skilled workforce,”explained Handel. “There’s a hope that if we get more students onto a pathway for college, they’ll be able to fill these jobs that are coming back downtown.”

Handel says the program will also help reduce the the number of families leaving the city. Detroit’s population, which stood at well over a million residents for most of the 1990s, has fallen to just 676,312 residents in 2016, the last year data was available.

“This is largely about retention of residents,” said Handel. “The city has been losing residents, so there’s a hope that this will slow down or end that drain away from the city.”

In 2011, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder formed a working group with the Detroit Regional Chamber to brainstorm ways to reform the city’s education system. They settled on a last-dollar scholarship program, to be administered by the chamber and funded by the Michigan Educational Excellence Foundation, a nonprofit business foundation created to improve education outcomes for low-income Detroiters.

The new scholarship, which made community college available tuition-free for all students in the city, became known as the Detroit Promise.

“As we look to the future, the next generation of leaders is being developed here in our schools,” said Gov. Rick Snyder last Fall in a blog post. “The Detroit Promise helps to provide access to a high-quality education, so that our students are equipped with the skills necessary to continue the city’s comeback for generations to come.”

More than 2,000 students have used the funds to attend community college since the program’s inception four years ago. Starting last year, the Promise was expanded to several four-year universities in the area—although students must have at least a 3.0 GPA and a score of 1060 on the SAT to gain admission.

Of the students who attended community college through the scholarship, about 20 percent graduated, which is roughly the national average for low-income, first-generation students, said Handel. To boost success rates, the chamber hired coaches to help students navigate the college experience.

“From research, we know that some low-income, first-year students enter college with a feeling they don’t belong,” said Handel. “Coaches encourage them not to get too stressed or too down on themselves, especially after that first setback.”

Looking ahead, Handel hopes to increase the numbers of students attending community college through the Promise from 500 to 700, and to roughly double the graduation rate for participating students to 40 percent.

“As employers look to hire Detroit residents for jobs and internships, we want to encourage our students to be in that pipeline,” said Handel. “A lot of these students believe that college is a luxury they can’t afford, even if the tuition is paid for. We want to show these kids that a pathway to success exists.”

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