Detroit — After graduating from Communication and Media Arts High School, Johnathan Land realized he had an opportunity that could change his life.
Not only would he receive free tuition for a two-year degree at Oakland Community College, but the Detroit Promise Path program would pay him a $50 monthly stipend and provide a coach to guide him toward graduation as part of a new plan available to the city's students.
“No one around here is going to college,” said Land, 22. “It’s so easy to get stuck in a job for 20, 30 years that you hate. That was my whole philosophy for going to college to become a little more educated ... and not get stuck.”
Today he's a janitor at Dearborn Heights Public Schools. He left OCC after three years, just a few credits short of the associate degree he still hopes to earn.
The first detailed report on the success of the program, to be released Thursday, shows that Land's story is more the norm than the exception. Only 7.2% of the students in the Promise Path earned certificates or a degree within three years, compared to 6.8% of those who received tuition alone. Fewer than 100 of the more than 1,000 students in the report's study earned a degree or certificate within three years.
For educators, it’s the latest indication that the barriers to finishing a higher education for historically disadvantaged populations will be more difficult to overcome than by providing free tuition coupled with a meager stipend and counseling assistance.
For most recipients, the biggest impediment continues to be economic, said a researcher who worked on the study. That often reduces a student's opportunity to take classes full-time.
"Financial need was at the top of their list," said Colleen Sommo, principal investigator of the study conducted by New York-based education and social policy research group MDRC, which designed the program with the Detroit Regional Chamber. "It presented itself in different ways from lacking reliable transportation to having to focus on paying their rent and the need to work more.
"Although the program was providing them with additional resources, for some students, it wasn't enough to allow them to fully focus on being a student and really have to continue to deal with those life challenges."
In an effort to help fight poverty, the Detroit Regional Chamber has administered free college tuition programs for more than 30 years to develop the city's workforce with higher education — especially as the region has lost low-skill, high-wage factory jobs and new jobs increasingly require post-secondary education.
In 2013, it initiated the Detroit Promise, which granted the city's students a tuition scholarship that helps them attend two-year community colleges. A promise program for students to attend four-year universities for free followed.
The chamber also added the Detroit Promise Path, with the additional assistance, in 2016. The program pairs community college students with coaches to help them navigate obstacles, stay on track with classes and earn either a two-year associate degree or a professional certificate, including a trade. It also gives students the $50 monthly stipend after they meet twice monthly with their coaches.
Students, coaches discuss the Detroit Promise Path college assistance program
Andy Morrison, The Detroit News
Detroit's effort showed enough early promise that Rhode Island and four communities, including Flint, replicated it.
But while 450-500 Detroit students are now enrolling and getting at least some community college every year, the Detroit Promise programs are not leading to a significant number of students earning a credential, either an associate degree, professional certificate or trade despite $17 million being poured into the programs since 2013. Just under 225 community college students have earned a credential in that time.
The results of the latest study suggest the program enhancements were not robust enough to turn the tide of college dropouts.
Some students couldn't graduate in three years because they attended part-time rather than full-time because they needed to work, and many were not prepared by their high schools and had to take remedial courses that set back the time it would take to graduate, said Sommo, an MDRC senior associate for postsecondary education.
There's not a sole reason why the Detroit program fell short of helping more students graduate, Sommo said.
Social issues, such as being part of a low-income family, being the first to go to college or being a student of color and fighting a sense of not belonging or stereotypes also played a role, according to the report.
Sommo also questioned whether the program was able to fully support the students in the program based on surveys and focus groups that showed the need to work, pay for books and find reliable transportation were barriers to success.
The Detroit Promise Path study focused attention on outcomes of free college tuition programs and a national problem of low graduation rates among community college students.
The study included 829 students enrolled in the Detroit Promise Path and 439 students in the Detroit Promise during 2016 and 2017. The MDRC study concluded that the Detroit Promise Path did improve student retention, rates of full-time enrollment and credit accumulation.
However, 287 of the 829 Detroit Promise Path students never registered for classes. The report found a 7.2% graduation rate because all 829 enrolled students were included in the study. The actual number of Detroit Promise Path students who participated was 529. Of those, 10.7% earned a credential.
Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent programs for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said the study might not have shown the success everyone was hoping for, but it is clear students valued the coaching and support. Since 2018, all students enrolled in the Detroit Promise are assigned a coach, get the $50 monthly stipend and other support.
"We know that the students who had coaches earned more credits and were more likely to be enrolled full-time," Handel said. "But at the end of three years, we all agree we want to see more students graduating."
Even with the free tuition, coaching and other support, the 7.2% of Detroit Promise Path students who earned a credential after three years significantly trails the national average for completion at two-year colleges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 33% of first-time, full-time students at community colleges nationwide complete a degree within three years.
The number no one is talking about is the 36.3% of students who were still enrolled in community college at the end of three years, said Peter Remington, president and CEO of the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, which annually funds as the primary supporter the $2.8 million Detroit Promise, which includes $1 million for the Detroit Promise Path.
Remington noted students already face enormous financial challenges, might have to support their families and recently have grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. If it takes longer for them to graduate, he said the foundation, which gets its funding from foundations and private sources, will be there for them.
"In our mind, this has been enormously successful," Remington said. "These young people are still taking courses. Graduation may not be as fast as everyone hoped ... but it's working. We understand these kids have a huge hill to climb."
He said the program can't end now because it's an essential part of Detroit's renaissance. He added discussions of finding money to help students buy books or help with transportation or other emergencies are ongoing.
"If we want to build a city that we all want," Remington said, "we can't leave anybody behind."
The coaching portion of the program also provides many things not reflected in the study's numbers, said Mark Yancy, a coach working with students at Henry Ford College. Some students left community college to go to barber school or an apprentice school or to start their own businesses.
The chamber expanded the Detroit Promise Path to all students entering the Detroit Promise program in 2018, so all students have a coach.
Perhaps even more important, Yancy said, is the program offers benefits that can't be measured.
"We are telling students you don’t have limits," Yancy said. "People can’t put labels on you that limit what you can do in your life. Even students who don’t graduate from our college, leave with that message, and that changes them, changes their neighborhood and changes this city. That is not reflected in the math."
Land said his coach was helpful as he struggled with understanding the college admissions process and deciding which career to pursue. He plans to one day pursue an information technology certificate elsewhere.
"I know how easy it is to get stuck working in a dead-end job and not getting paid very much and breaking your back every day, especially when you know there are other options out there," he said.
Low-income, first-generation students
Going to college is a pathway that millions of Americans take to create a better life: More than 25 million students enroll in an institution of higher education every year. But many don't graduate. National data shows only 62% of students graduate from four-year institutions after six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Students who attend community college are even less likely to graduate.
Numerous factors drive graduation rates lower, said Alyssa Ratledge, a research associate with MDRC. Students of color, those who come from low-income families or are the first in their families to go to college are less likely to graduate.
"That hits a lot of boxes with Detroit's population," Ratledge said. "This is a predominately Black population, many are first-generation students, there are a lot of low-income students who are working. All of those things are issues that overall reduce students' likelihood of graduation and also increase their time to degree, meaning it's going to take them longer to get their degree if they do get it."
But post-high school education is widely becoming the avenue regarded as the most important way to advance socioeconomically and for communities to prosper, said Martha Kanter, CEO of College Promise, a national initiative building support for college promise programs.
Many people don't go to college because they can't afford it or think it is not for them, said Kanter, who is a former U.S. undersecretary of education.
"College is not an elite place anymore," Kanter said. "College is for everyone."
Post-secondary education is especially critical to a community like Detroit, where unemployment has generally been higher than state and national averages. Detroit also has long struggled with poverty, racism, underperforming public schools and a lack of reliable public transportation.
"A high school education is not going to be enough for the vast amount of people to support a family," Handel said.
Searching for solutions
Work by the chamber to help Detroit high school graduates earn a higher education began in 1989 with a program that paid tuition and fees at community colleges not covered by the Pell Grants, university awards or other scholarships. It was known as the Detroit Compact. It evolved into the Detroit Promise after Michigan launched the nation's free college tuition movement in 2005 when a group of anonymous donors funded the Kalamazoo Promise.
The Detroit Promise covers the tuition of qualified Detroit high school graduates working toward associate degrees at Wayne County, Oakland, Macomb and Schoolcraft community colleges and Henry Ford College. Jackson College also recently became a part of the program.
Community colleges grant two-year associate degrees and professional certificates, some of which can take a year or less to earn. Many are in high-paying, high-demand fields that can lead to employment immediately after graduation. Associate degrees can be earned in areas such as health care and accounting while certificates can lead to work in trades like construction and welding.
The Detroit Promise expanded in 2016 to pay tuition for students seeking a degree at four-year institutions, with the colleges and universities picking up most of the costs. Currently, 20 colleges and universities are partners.
But in the early years of the Detroit Promise, chamber officials noticed that about 30% of students would not return for their second year of community college. Few graduated.
It became evident that free tuition was not enough, said Handel. Students who had been awarded funding for college were sometimes failing silently. They encountered issues, such as a vehicle breaking down, that led to a missed test or classes.
"And then they think to themselves, 'Well, I'm just going to come back next semester,'" Handel said. "And once a student leaves, the likelihood of them coming back is they don't."
Further complicating the situation is many Detroit students, like most community college students nationally, take three years to earn a credential because they aren't prepared for the rigor of college classes, and they must take remedial courses that don't award college credit.
"The reward is so far down the road, and if they don't see anyone in their family circle or network of friends going to school every day, students ask themselves why they are going every day," Handel said.
A pivotal moment happened in 2015 when Handel saw a presentation by MDRC about an initiative that was improving graduation rates at City University of New York. CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs was expensive, but it was helping more students graduate.
Handel was interested because the focus went beyond paying for students to go to college and focused on helping them stay in college and graduate. A year later, in 2016, the chamber piloted the Detroit Promise Path and the MDRC began to study it.
“A lot of people had always assumed once you got people in the front door of a community college or university, you could declare victory,” Handel said. “We know that is not the case.”
6 hours on a bus
Preston Welborne El was enrolled in his second semester at Oakland Community College as a Detroit Promise Path scholar in winter 2019, and he was spending a lot of time on buses.
They took him from his home in Detroit, where he was living with his dad, to OCC's Orchard Ridge campus in Farmington Hills, and back, a distance of 23 miles that took three hours each way.
"It was really rough," said Welborne El, 22.
The stipend helped with buying food and gas after he bought a car, he said. But having his coach, Ashley Robinson, to lean on made the difference since neither one of his parents has a college degree. He met with her twice a month and talked about what was going on in school and his life.
"To have somebody who was there in your corner not only to help you but also motivate and grow with you, I couldn't even put into words how much that meant to me," Welborne El said. "I don't think I would have gotten through that program without that support."
He worked during his second semester at OCC and stacked all of his classes over two days to limit the number of days he had to spend six hours on the bus.
When the commutes became too much, Welborne El tried to buy a car but got scammed. He resorted to asking for rides to school or paying for an Uber.
"I was stuck," he said.
He moved to Lathrup Village in the summer of 2019 to live with an aunt. She and her ex-husband helped him buy a 2013 Hyundai Sonata for $3,000. The car’s engine failed three months later, he replaced it, and a few months later, he was the victim of a hit-and-run crash that left him using a walker and later a cane.
Robinson was there for him through it all, he said.
"She told me to keep going and tried to keep me motivated, and she would see who might have food or was offering ride-sharing serves to keep me on the path moving forward," Welborne El said.
He eventually earned his associate degree in cinematic arts at OCC and is now a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is majoring in film, television and media and minoring in business.
His aunt is helping him with costs this semester, but he is not sure how he will pay for the rest of his time at UM.
"There is nobody telling me I am not good enough or I can't afford it," Welborne El said. "There are a lot of people in situations like mine or situations that are worse and can figure it out. If they can do it, I can do it. As long as (UM) said, 'Come on in,' I have to do whatever I can to make it happen."
A replicated promise
There are more than 300 promise programs nationwide that replicated the Kalamazoo Promise, which was designed to get more people to move to Kalamazoo with the offer of free college for students.
The program pays four years of tuition and mandatory fees for students who enroll in the district by kindergarten and graduate from a Kalamazoo high school. Students are eligible for a portion of their tuition and fees if they enter high school in the district and graduate.
But no one has collectively studied completion rates across multiple promise programs, said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher studying the free college movement at the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo.
"All promise programs work to improve outcomes for their students," said Miller-Adams, author of the forthcoming book, The Path to Free College. "The payoff to receiving a credential is high. It's really important for future earnings. And you don't get that payoff if you just take some college classes."
CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs began in 2007 and a 2015 study showed that the program nearly doubled graduation rates for community college students — 40% of students in the program earned a credential over three years versus 21.8% of students who were not in the program. It was the largest intervention evaluated by MDRC.
At the time, the report said the CUNY program cost $14,029 per student not including tuition over three years. The New York program's non-tuition costs have dropped to $3,000 per student per year.
The Detroit Promise Path, by contrast, costs $1,944 per student over the three years of the program, not including tuition, according to the report.
Five communities replicated some of Detroit's strategies after a preliminary report in April 2019 touted early success of the Detroit Promise Path.
Among them was were the city of Flint and the state of Rhode Island.
Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, looked to the Detroit Promise Path when her team was building promise programs in 2017. In four years, Rhode Island's promise programs have enrolled twice as many low-income students and students of color. Rhode Island's graduation rate for first-time, full-time students in 2020 rose 127% to 475 students compared to 2016 when 209 students graduated the year before the Rhode Island Promise programs began.
"Rhode Island, like every other state in America, has really shameful equity gaps, meaning our educational outcomes for our White middle-class students are far stronger than for our non-White working-class students," Hughes said. "We need to fix that. It's a business imperative. It's certainly a moral imperative."
Flint incorporated coaches when it launched its promise program in 2018 with 70 students enrolled at Mott Community College and four at UM-Flint. Kettering University became a partner in 2019.
Coaches in Flint are working with students on issues ranging from connecting students with a tutor to identifying housing and food resources to helping them get a driver's license.
"Several barriers arose that may have even been beyond what we anticipated," said James Avery, director of education and training at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce. "Even more with the pandemic being in place, our coaches have gone far and beyond to make sure that students who do remain in the program, feel the wrap-around services we offer.
The Flint program is still young, and the pandemic has also sidelined some students, so it doesn't have graduation data.
"But that is to come," Avery said.
Sidelined by pandemic
Tianna Carr is proud of her first year at Henry Ford College as a Detroit Promise Path scholar.
She enrolled in September 2019 and went full-time for two semesters, taking classes to become an electrician. She carried a 4.0 GPA.
Yancy, her coach, worked with her on a lot of issues during that year.
"He really did help me a lot," Carr said. "He gave me comfort and advice. The first year, I had trouble with transportation. He helped me find ways to get money in order to take two buses to college and he’d help me organize myself sometimes because I’d be all over the place. He also helped me with communication."
Carr enrolled in four classes in the fall semester of her second year. But she couldn't afford to pay for the books, which cost $540. She had to pay for repairs to her computer.
Carr is a digital animated artist and tried to earn money by doing art commissions. She also did work for her church, made hats and scarves and sold them, cut grass and raked leaves.
In mid-October, her grandparents got the coronavirus, but it was especially serious for her grandfather.
"It was really all I could think of at the time," Carr said.
Carr dropped out of Henry Ford College last semester and hasn't reenrolled. But the 19-year-old said she plans to go back in the fall after she gets a summer job and saves enough money to be prepared for book costs and any other unforeseen expenses.
"If I could be an electrician, I can imagine myself waking up every day and wiring things because it’s entertaining to me. If I wake up every morning and love my job, it’s worth it.”
'Not end of story'
The chamber is exploring ways to incorporate more career-track internships into the program since some students have to choose between going to college or working. Internships could help students see the relevance of their education, connect them to potential career opportunities and also create a talent pipeline for local businesses, Handel said.
Everyone should take away the results of the Detroit Promise Path as positive, said Sommo. After three years, because it helped Detroit students stay in college longer, earn more credits and potentially more may graduate in the future. She also emphasized that students face daunting challenges outside of academics.
"This is not the end of the story," Sommo said. "We see a sizeable impact on the proportion of students who are there for five or six semesters. I am interested in following them longer-term to see whether this academic progress does lead to more credentials. It’s too soon to say that it didn’t."