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A scholarship program that aims to give Detroit high school students a tuition-free path to higher education is expanding beyond community colleges this year to include four-year institutions.

The $2.5 million Detroit Promise, unveiled in March, is giving two-year scholarships to 540 Detroit high school graduates to attend five community colleges in the region. It also is pilot testing an initiative to send 293 students to the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and other four-year institutions.

The two-year pilot program will cover four years of tuition costs and fees for students in the program this year, and another cohort next year. Officials are working to make it permanent.

“When we started this program, people were really excited about sending Detroit students to college for two years, but they hoped we would eventually send students to four-year universities,” said Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent programs at the Detroit Regional Chamber, which administers Detroit Promise. “For this to have a transformative impact on the city, a two-year program is good but a four-year program is a game-changer.”

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, spoke about the Detroit Promise last week to hundreds of higher education advocates at the National College Access Network’s annual conference in Detroit.

“Young people in Detroit need to have the same opportunities that young people have everywhere,” Allen said. “We know that capable, intelligent kids from low-income neighborhoods are less likely to go to college as kids from well-to-do families. We are leaving talent on the table — people who are really smart, intelligent and passionate.”

This year’s Detroit Promise participants include Leila Ramirez, a Cesar Chavez Academy graduate who is attending the University of Michigan.

“It’s definitely a big help to my family,” Ramirez said. “I don’t know how I could have paid for it otherwise.”

Louis Wyre, a graduate of University of Detroit Jesuit High School who’s enrolled at MSU, depicted the scholarship as a blessing for students like him from Detroit.

“This is a motivation for kids to continue their education, work their way through school, meet the requirements and receive the scholarship,” Wyre said. “That way, they are able to stay on the right path and be successful, and in turn, make contributions to the city of Detroit and inspire other kids to do the same.”

The Detroit Promise is modeled on a seminal program in Kalamazoo, which gave students the promise of a higher education thanks to an anonymous donor. The Kalamazoo Promise, which covers tuition for the city’s high school graduates at four-year Michigan colleges and universities, inspired dozens of other communities nationwide to work on guaranteeing that students could afford higher education.

The foundation for the Detroit Promise was laid in 1989 with the Detroit Compact, which helped students pay tuition and fees at community colleges that weren’t covered by Pell Grants, university awards or other scholarships. But it was catapulted by Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2011 announcement that he wanted to see more Promise programs based in Michigan, Handel said.

Snyder created the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation (MEEF), which funded the community college portion of what is now known as the Detroit Promise. MEEF funds also are being used for the four-year program, along with support from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

Years ago, the students who qualified for the Detroit program came from a limited number of schools in Detroit — mostly neighborhood public schools. Today, the scope has widened to include all public, charter and private schools in Detroit.

To qualify, students must have at least a 3.0 grade point average, an ACT score of 21 or an SAT score of 1060. They also must attend college full-time.

Since its beginning, more than 2,000 Detroit students have qualified for funding toward associate degrees at Wayne County Community College District, Oakland Community, Macomb Community, Schoolcraft and Henry Ford colleges.

Soon, the two-year college scholarships for city students will be available in perpetuity with public dollars generated through the Detroit Promise Zone, a legal designation created under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2009 that allows Detroit to capture a portion of state education taxes generated in the city to fund scholarships.

While the number of Detroit students taking advantage of the program is low, Handel said they are working to do more outreach, particularly those planning to attend community colleges, and encouraging students to enroll.

This year, officials are working to enroll half of the program’s community college students — about 250 to 300 — in a study known as the Detroit Promise Path to help them improve their chances of graduating based on national models that have shown to improve success rates.

“It’s not enough for students to just go, they have to graduate,” Handel said.

The study, conducted by MDRC, a social policy research organization based in New York, will test a performance-based scholarship among the Detroit Promise Path scholars.

Unlike merit scholarships, which reward students for past behavior, the performance-based scholarships will reward students with a $50 gift card when they meet twice a month with coaches who will provide resources, academic counseling and more to keep students on track.

“Performance-based scholarships can make a difference,” said Colleen Sommo, a senior research associate at MDRC. “Having comprehensive programs that alleviate multiple barriers to success helps students progress in their college careers and graduate.”

In addition to UM and MSU, all of the state’s public universities are participating or plan to join the initiative, except for Lake Superior State University. Grand Valley State University and Ferris State University plan to participate, Handel said, but not this year.

Additionally, Marygrove College and University of Detroit-Mercy are participating in the four-year program.

“We’ve been in Detroit since 1877, we are committed to the city, we are proud to be an urban university,” said Gary Lichtman, media director of University of Detroit-Mercy. “The Detroit Promise mirrors our Jesuit and Sisters of Mercy mission, so it’s a very good fit for us.”

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