Detroit Scholarship FundMarch 19, 2015
By Noah Purcell
While access to free community college education is drawing attention following President Obama’s State of the Union address, a program that could serve as a model for the nation is already underway in Detroit thanks to the leadership of Gov. Rick Snyder. The Detroit Scholarship Fund (DSF), administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, provides any graduate of a Detroit high school a tuition-free path to an associate degree.
With its first cohort of over 600 in the 2013-14 school year, the DSF doubled the previous year’s numbers of students from Detroit high schools enrolled across the five eligible institutions: Wayne County Community College District, Macomb Community College, Oakland Community College, Schoolcraft College, and Henry Ford College. The 2014-15 cohort posted similar numbers.
“Just by making the guarantee, you’re providing support to students who need it,” said Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “You’re incentivizing kids to take advantage of aid that was there that they just might not have known about. College is a very mysterious thing for many of these kids and financial aid even more so. The program helps engage them in this process.”
With funding drawn from the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation (MEEF), the DSF covers all costs toward an associate or technical degree above what is provided by federal Pell Grants or by Michigan’s Tuition Incentive Program (TIP). The money goes to tuition and registration fees. MEEF leads the effort to fund the DSF from the private sector. While the funding from the MEEF is essential to cover gaps in aid, many students did not require any extra money apart from their financial aid dollars – providing the DSF a strong return on investment.
“We needed to build on what was already there,” Handel said. “We knew there was already a lot of federal aid that supports students going to community college, but when we looked at how many students were leaving Detroit high schools and going directly into community college as a full-time student, there were only like 300 a year out of a graduating class of 4,500 to 5,000. We’ve doubled that and are looking to expand further.”
The work to connect Detroit’s youth with the scholarship opportunity starts in the high schools, as Chamber staff working on the DSF connect with school counselors and students to make them aware of the financial aid process. One of the requirements of the DSF is that students have filled out their FAFSA forms. Other stipulations include two years of residency in the city of Detroit and enrollment in a Detroit-based high school, be it publicly, privately, charter or the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan (EAA) run.
While the DSF found its logistical footing in its first year of operation, the work being done as the 2014-15 cohort progresses in classes has a higher focus on how to support students once they are in school to help ensure success.
“We’re really trying to figure out what we can do inside the colleges and what we can offer our students to try and make sure that they’re as successful as they can be,” said Monica Rodriguez, DSF coordinator.
DSF expanded a peer-to-peer mentoring model at Henry Ford College to specifically include its cohort, where second-year students are paid to mentor first-year students. Chamber coordinators for DSF also run a service called Signal Vine that allows them to reach out directly and respond to questions as students encounter them via text message to improve communication.
“We encourage them to text in with anything because we want them to know we are able to support them no matter how big or small the problem is,” Rodriguez said.