Detroit College Challenge seeks to boost enrollment

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — High school senior De’Auna Barnes wants to study nursing in college.

Michigan State University, Alma College and Albion College are among the institutions to which she has been accepted. Still, as Barnes works to finish her last year of high school at Voyager Academy in Detroit, the demands of applying to multiple schools, searching for scholarships and juggling critical deadlines can sometimes be too much.

“The whole process is kind of stressful. I get overwhelmed sometimes,” said Barnes, 17.

Barnes and thousands of high school students like her in Detroit are getting help, information and support through a program called the Detroit College Challenge as they navigate the complex process of applying to college.

The program, a partnership between the Detroit College Access Network and the nonprofit Get Schooled, seeks to boost the numbers of Detroit students who enroll, stay in and graduate from college.

The challenge is an initiative that encourages high school students across the city to engage with the website Get Schooled Detroit. The program is funded by a grant from General Motors Co.

Officials with the program say many Detroit students are first-time college applicants with no one at home to advise them. Some schools in Detroit lack full-time college advisers to guide students throughout the multi-year preparation and application process. Some kids are just plain afraid of getting rejected.

According to the access network, about 32 percent of Detroit high school graduates stay in college for 24 credits or two semesters and 16 percent end up earning a two- or four-year degree within six years.

Ashley Johnson, executive director of Detroit College Access Network, said Detroit’s high school students do have high aspirations to go to college. In Detroit, about 63 percent of an estimated 5,700 high school seniors enrolled in a two- or four-year program, according to 2015 data.

“But they literally don’t know what steps they need to get into college,” Johnson said. “We don’t want them to wait until their senior year. We want them to think about it in ninth grade and start planning for their dream college.”

Billed as a one-stop online resource, Get Schooled Detroit is customized for Detroit high school students to help them understand how to prepare for, apply to and pay for college. It has specific information for students in grades 9-12, such as how to apply to college and navigate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Get Schooled uses a gaming platform to engage students and encourages school-wide engagement.

It also outlines the steps required to be eligible for the Detroit Promise, a scholarship program that provides free two- and four-year degrees to qualifying Detroit high school graduates who attend school and live in the city.

Students can sign up for college tips via text from Get Schooled, including study reminders and application deadlines. Students can also use a text to reach a credentialed college adviser to answer any specific questions, said Marie Groark, executive director of Detroit’s Get Schooled program.

“They can text any question about college, and we have a staff that responds 24/7. We are certified college advisers. They respond personally to the text, not an automated system,” Groark said.

For ninth-graders, the program suggests students consider college tours and plan for a rigorous coursework. In 10th grade, students are asked to create their college wish lists and narrow down career explorations. By 11th grade, students should be preparing a portfolio, resume, obtaining letters of recommendations and narrowing their list of colleges.

Students typically apply to colleges near the end of their junior year through the beginning of their senior year. Because application fees are waived for economically disadvantaged students in Detroit, school officials in Detroit encourage students to apply to multiple colleges.

Kalum Gaddis, 17, a senior at Voyager Academy, said the hardest part of applying to college is waiting to learn whether you’re accepted. With the help of the staff at Voyager, which includes a certified, full-time college adviser, Gaddis has applied to seven colleges and been accepted at six.

Ten full-time college advisers are in places across the entire city in 11 schools, funded through the Michigan College Access Network. Advisers work in five Detroit Public Schools Community District, four charter schools and one in Detroit Cristo Rey High School, a college-preparatory Catholic high school. One adviser works out of Chandler Park Academy, which is not in Detroit, but serves a majority of Detroit students and is a partner of the access network.

“I still need to apply for more scholarships, and I need to apply to more schools. I want more acceptance letters,” Gaddis said. “They helped me get ready to apply, knowing how to get in, what I need to do when I get there. ... I need to study more.”

On a recent school day, officials with DCAN and Get Schooled paid a visit to a class of seniors at Voyager Academy, a Detroit charter school, to talk about the Detroit College Challenge.

Since its launch, Get Schooled Detroit has received more than 5,000 visits and more than 1,250 Detroit students have signed up to receive tips and have their college questions answered.

Get Schooled has developed a track record of success, Groark says, because it engages with students using the media, technology and popular culture that is an integral part of their lives.

The more students learn about the Detroit Promise, practice for their SAT’s or explore post-secondary options, they earn points for themselves and their school, Groark said. Most active schools can “unlock the box” and earn a $500 grant. Top performing schools can earn a $2,500 grant.

“If a freshman or sophomore thinks he can’t afford college, we want them to think they can and take advantage of this. Once you realize college is possible, it may change how you work in high school,” Groark said.