Study: Initiative helps Detroit Promise students succeed

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Preston Welborne El takes a final on April 23, 2019 in his accounting procedures class at the Orchard Ridge Campus of Oakland Community College.

During the two years that Preston Welborne El has attended Oakland Community College, he has navigated many roadblocks on his way to getting a degree, including a three-hour bus commute from Detroit and struggling to find healthy, affordable meals. 

Welborne El, who is getting his tuition paid through the Detroit Promise scholarship program, could have been among the many students every year who start college but don't make it to the second year.

But Welborne El has been able to persist because of an initiative known as the Detroit Promise Path, which has built support services into the city's Promise scholarship program for some students as part of a study.

The initiative, which compared the success of those students with scholarship recipients who didn't receive the assistance, has shown so much promise that it has become a national model and expanded to communities in five other communities across the nation, including Flint.

Data released Wednesday showed that the support program, which includes a stipend and a campus coach, has improved student retention, full-time enrollment and credit accumulation, according to MDRC, a New York-based nonprofit education and social policy research organization that partnered with Detroit Regional Chamber in designing the program.

"It's helped me get through college," said Welborne El, who pointed to his coach, Ashley Robinson, as playing a key role in his success. "I didn't really have anybody that would give me the blueprint or tell me you need to make sure you do this or think about this.

"Everything was overwhelming for me because I was the only person I had," he said. "Having her there, just to have someone to throw questions off of and brainstorm helped me plan my path, it's been very influential in my college career."

"I don't think I would be around right now without her help," Welborne El said.

Martha Kanter — former U.S. Undersecretary of Education who is the executive director of the College Promise Campaign — traveled to Detroit for the release of the study at the Michigan College Promise Symposium, being held Wednesday at the Detroit Regional Chamber. The national organization is working to help students get funding for their first two years of higher education.

“Everyone is looking for outcomes,” said Kanter. “This is a very important study for the country because it’s going to show the kind of strategies that make a difference for students, especially for students from underserved populations.”

The Detroit Promise Path uses four strategies to help students stay in college: It requires campus coaching, offers a $50 stipend for expenses not covered by financial aid, encourages students to take summer classes and uses a management information system to track and monitor students.

Preston Welborne El, in a hallway at the Orchard Ridge campus of Oakland Community College on  April 23, 2019, earning his associate degree through the Detroit Promise Path scholarship program which gives Detroit high school graduates free college tuition. He is now enrolled at the University of Michigan.

A study of the Detroit Promise Path began in 2016, when it randomly enrolled two thirds, or 829, of the students in the Detroit Promise program, which pays for up to a bachelor's degree for city residents at six participating community colleges or 17 four-year universities.

The remaining 439 students only received the Detroit Promise scholarship. Eighty percent of students are African American, while 12% are Hispanic.

Wednesday's interim report showed that Path program students were 8.1 percentage points more likely to enroll in their second semester than the other scholarship recipients (62.7% versus 54.6%).

It also showed that students in the Path program were nearly three times more likely to enroll in summer session during their first year (20.5% versus 7%). They were also twice as likely to complete 24 or more credits in their first year (10.8% versus 5.6%).

Though it is too early to reach a conclusion about effects in the second year of the study, evaluators say the early findings are significant and encouraging.

 “The effects of the Detroit Promise Path on persistence and full-time enrollment in the second semester are among the largest we’ve seen in rigorous tests of higher education interventions,” said Alexander Mayer, deputy director of postsecondary education at MDRC. 

The Detroit Promise Path began more than 10 years after an anonymous group of donors pledged in 2005 to pay the college tuition of Kalamazoo students. Known as the Kalamazoo Promise, it became the first, and seminal, college promise scholarship program.

Since then, more than 300 promise scholarship programs across the country have been created to help students afford college costs, according to the College Promise Campaign.

But most promise programs focus on getting students into college, said Alyssa Ratledge, an MDRC research analyst. Few work to keep students in college, and get them to graduate.

When Detroit, one of the poorest cities in the nation, began offering a college promise scholarship program in 2013, the Chamber noticed that only 35% of students stayed enrolled, said Ratledge, lead author of the study.

"The Chamber reached out to us in early 2016, and said we have this program and we are observing the students, we see that students are going to college but retention rates are still very low," she said. 

"What we are seeing from students is they get on campus and they don't know who to talk to, they don't know how to handle financial aid, they don't known how to handle the expectations of a college environment," Ratledge said. "The vast majority of these students, not surprisingly, are the first to go to college so they are just not sure what to do."

That's why the Detroit chamber, which has been involved in educational initiatives for more than 100 years as a way to promote economic development, wanted to create a support program for promise scholarships students, based on proven research strategies.

"The first director of the Kalamazoo Promise said the are two reasons students struggle in college: money, and everything else," said Greg Handel, Detroit Regional Chamber vice president, education and talent programs.

"Covering tuition is important. The coaches are there to help with the everything else. We are on a positive trajectory. We are in a tough space. Our evaluators are pleased because they don't see much working in this space anywhere."

The program's strategies have expanded to promise programs in Flint; Richmond, California; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles and Rhode Island. 

They also prompted a short film produced by documentary filmmaker Mikaela Beardsley with support from the Kresge Foundation.

"We made this short film to tell the story of how Detroit is using an evidence-based approach to improve outcomes for its students," said Zachary Coile, spokesman for Results for America, a national nonprofit that use evidence and data to improve results for children, families and communities.

"By building on what has worked elsewhere and rigorously evaluating the results, the leaders behind Detroit Promise Path are providing a model for College Promise programs across the country."

Robinson, the campus coach at Oakland Community College, said she understands the importance of her work to students, but also to Detroit.

"We want our students to feel like the are in charge, they are empowered, they can navigate this space and they can do it well," said Robinson. "We see the importance of education as a mediator of change for this community. We recognize that a college degree can change the outcome not only for the student but for the student’s family and for generations to come.

"Not only are we helping out students," she added, "we are helping the future of Detroit."