Detroit solidifies free college degree program

Christine Ferretti, and Kim Kozlowski

Detroit is making a promise to every high school student: Graduate and there will be funding for the first two years of college.

The city is able to make this promise because a program that already has been supporting Detroit students’ college education will get permanent funding to guarantee a tuition-free path to an associate degree for every student who graduates from a school in the city.

Meanwhile, a pilot program also is being launched to give some Detroit students scholarships to earn four-year degrees.

Officials announced Tuesday the two-year college scholarships for city students will be available in perpetuity through the Detroit Promise Zone, a designation created by law during the administration of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm that allows Detroit to capture a portion of state education taxes generated in the city to offer scholarships.

It will be known as the Detroit Promise.

“We are making a promise to every single child who graduates in the city of Detroit that you have your first two years of college paid for at community college,” Mayor Mike Duggan said during a press conference.

“It doesn’t matter today if you are in 10th grade or you’re in third grade, we can promise you that when your time comes, at least your first two years are going to be paid for because you graduated from a school in the city of Detroit.”

Both scholarships will build on the Detroit Scholarship Fund, funded by the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation and other foundations, which has paved the way for 1,500 students to study for their associate degrees.

The Detroit Promise scholarship will cover tuition and fees for up to three years, or the time required to earn an associate degree, whichever is less, the plan notes. Officials say the city’s 2016 graduates will be the first eligible for the new program.

The program funding four-year scholarships will be funded by the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, most of the state’s public universities, a few private colleges, and the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“We’re trying to expand access so more students are covered and have educational options,” said Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent for the chamber.

Under the Detroit Promise, Detroit high school graduates can attend one of five community colleges — Henry Ford, Wayne, Oakland, Macomb or Schoolcraft College — to obtain a two-year degree.

Eligible students have up to one year after graduation to apply for the program. Once enrolled, they must maintain a full-time course load, with a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester.

Within three years, the Detroit Promise will be funded in perpetuity with promise zone tax dollars for Detroit students who have attended a public, charter, private, parochial or Education Achievement Authority school in the city for two years.

Surrounded by a group of students and education, business and foundation leaders, Duggan touted the program Tuesday, the same day the Michigan Senate supported key legislation to reform Detroit Public Schools, a move the mayor says is needed to improve the standard of education and retain families in the city.

Jasmine Johnson, a junior at Cass Technological High School, said afterward she is going to take advantage of the Detroit Promise.

“Kids already think they can’t go to college,” said Johnson, 16. “This is a great opportunity to let kids know you don’t have to (skip) college because you don’t have the money for it. You get your first two years free.”

Though it wasn’t highlighted during the press conference, Detroit Regional Chamber officials said they have identified 300 Detroit school students who are qualified academically for the pilot program that will provide funding for four-year degrees.

It’s in similar spirit as the Kalamazoo Promise, a pioneering free-tuition program. The anonymously funded plan, announced in the fall of 2005, pays the college tuition of students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Duggan last year appointed the city’s eight-member Detroit Promise Zone Authority Board, which was approved by the City Council. On Monday, the Michigan Department of Treasury approved the authority board’s development plan for the scholarship program, officials said.

In Detroit, about 4,500 students graduate from high school each year.

The Detroit Promise scholarship as well as the pilot program for four-year degrees are “last dollar” scholarships used to cover tuition and other mandatory fees not covered by federal or state grant sources. Students must apply for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and accept all federal or state grants prior to the determination of eligibility for Promise, according to the development plan.

The effort works with students to ensure they are filling out financial aid assistance forms and covers the remaining tuition costs, and it offers career coaching and support services.

Currently, Duggan says, more than 25,000 students today are going to high school outside the city. The dedicated tax funding toward the scholarships will provide another selling point to strengthen the city’s schools, he said.

Duggan said the initiative should have happened years ago, but “like so many things, Detroit didn’t move quickly enough to provide support for our children.”

“All we can do right now is move forward,” said the mayor, noting the chamber’s program when it kicked off in 2013, ensured that any student that graduated from any high school in the city was provided access to the free community college education.

Under statute, Detroit’s Promise Zone Authority must operate for two years and meet goals outlined in its plan before it can capture the tax, allowing it to make the program permanent and potentially expand offerings.

The legislation mandates that communities first leverage private funding. In the interim, the Detroit Scholarship Fund would continue to cover the cost of the chamber-run program that initially launched in 2013.

Duggan on Tuesday said that in the 2018-19 tax year tax dollars from the growth of the city will start to go into the scholarship fund.

“What the chamber has done is raise the money to create a bridge for that,” he said. “We can’t expect the chamber to raise scholarship money forever. This is the way that it was intended to work. They’ve done a wonderful job in the short-run. We will have funding out of the education tax in the long-run.”

The city forecasts the tax capture, once effective, would provide funding for the next two decades, ranging from $1 million per year up to $4.5 million projected in 2035, according to property value estimates rooted in the city’s bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment.

Students must register for the Detroit Scholarship Fund and submit a free application for Federal Student Aid by June 30. For more information, visit

If Detroit high schoolers have already applied for a scholarship through or, they do not have to reapply following Tuesday’s announcement.