WSU pledges free tuition to Detroit residents, ‘a life-changer’

Kim Kozlowski Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Starting next fall, incoming freshmen from Detroit will get a major financial break if they want to earn a college degree at Wayne State University, officials pledged Wednesday.

The university announced it will provide free tuition for some of its semesters and discounted rates for the others to high school graduates in Detroit who want to remain in the city as part of its Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge. 

WSU Provost ‪Keith E. Whitfield revealed the pledge in front of hundreds of students at the Communication and Media Arts High School on the city’s west side, saying it could be a "life-changer" for generations to come. 

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson announces the free tuition program for Detroiters.

“This pledge is our commitment to make Wayne State University affordable and accessible to anyone willing to work hard, to ask questions, and to explore all that our great university has to offer,” Whitfield said.

“It’s not only a game-changer, it’s a life-changer. When you get that college degree, you change your life and you change the life of your family and the lives of those who come after you.”

The pledge will apply to those admitted to WSU as full-time freshmen starting in fall 2020. 

Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the pledge could potentially benefit more than 49,000 students enrolled in Detroit public schools as well as those in private, parochial, charter, home school or GED programs.

“Today is a special day at DPSCD because we know that when students rise, we all rise,” said Wilson, a DPS and WSU graduate. “Superintendent (Nikolai) Vitti has made it a district priority to increase the number of students who meet college readiness. So students, we need to be prepared.”

Students attend an event where Wayne State University Provost Keith Whitfield announces free tuition.

Qualifications for the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge

  • Those eligible for the pledge are students or graduates living in the city from any high school or graduate of any Detroit high school (public, private, charter, parochial, home school or GED program) in 2020 or after.
  • They also must use the RaiseMe app to complete activities associated with student success while earning micro-scholarships.
  • They must be admitted to WSU for the first time as a full-time freshman for fall 2020 or after. 
  • They must complete the Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application by March 1 for the following fall semester. 
  • Students must maintain full-time enrollment (12 or more credit hours) during the fall and winter semesters.
  • Students must pass at least 30 credits per academic year while attending WSU.

However, the pledge is not year-round. The Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge will only be available for fall and winter semesters. WSU offers a 30% tuition discount to students enrolled during spring and summer semesters. 

Additional expenses are not covered, including, housing, books, transportation and meals. The university offers emergency grants, housing scholarships and food pantries, that students must apply for separately, officials said.

The Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge is funded as a “last dollar in scholarship,” meaning students fill out a FAFSA and receive available state and federal dollars and then WSU will fill any financial gap through institutional scholarships and grants.

Wayne State said approximately one-third of its current 3,975 freshman class would have benefited from the pledge. WSU had more than 1,200 students qualify for similar funding last year and believe it will add another 100 students for the upcoming year.

Of those, 145 were first-time freshmen from Detroit public schools, 244 Detroit residents that are first-time freshmen, and 1,021 undergraduates who are Detroit public schools alumni.

"It’s impossible at this point to accurately predict how many students will use it in the first year, but our hope is that this results in 300 new freshmen who wouldn’t have otherwise come to WSU," said Ted Montgomery, a university spokesman.

Dawn Medley, associate vice president for enrollment at WSU, said the initiative will be sustainable for the university because many of the students who take advantage of it are going to be students who qualify for Pell Grants, merit scholarships and other awards.

"There was a gap in what we were already doing and what we could do by expanding it to all Detroit students," Medley said. "We don’t have a finite budget item for aid as we see it as an investment in students and base our aid awards on a tuition discount model which allows us to be strategic with our investments.

"We believe that we can offer this award, maintain our discount rate as an institution, and demonstrate our absolute commitment to access to higher education for the students of Detroit while still being fiscally responsible."

For Michigan residents, costs for the fall and winter semesters at WSU range from $11,700 for tuition and $19,280 for total estimated expenses, including books and transportation. The price compares to $23,000 for a non-Michigan resident's tuition and a total cost of $30,000 for non-Michigan residents for the two semesters.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to students at an event at Communication and Media Arts High School in Detroit where free Wayne State University tuition was announced for Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge students.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, WSU President M. Roy Wilson and DPSCD officials to announce the pledge on Wednesday.

“We know right now, too few people can afford the skills they need to make a good living in this state and in this country,” Whitmer said. “Right now, because we have out-priced the ability to go on and get a post-secondary degree for so many people. Despite the work that we have tried to keep tuition low, it has continued to skyrocket, and that’s why Wayne State’s commitment is such an incredible gift.”

Five seniors from the Communication and Media Arts High School, who are headed to WSU in the fall, were surprised Wednesday to learn in front of their peers that they were the first to have their tuition covered.

The pledge is the most recent addition to a list of programs designed to aid students in earning college degrees. In 2011, WSU partnered with the Detroit Regional Chamber to present the Detroit Promise program, which also offers two- and four-year scholarships to Detroit students through tax dollars. Since 2013, 3,651 students have taken attended college through the Detroit Promise program. Of those students, 2,916 were two-year scholarships and 735 were four-year students, according to the chamber.

Greg Handel, Detroit Regional Chamber's vice president of education and talent, said the WSU Pledge and Detroit Promise will work together to offer students free tuition. Those who meet the qualifications for the Detroit Promise (a 3.0 GPA and a minimum 21 ACT or 1060 SAT score) will be covered by the Chamber, but the majority will fall under the pledge.

"The Wayne State Heart of Detroit Pledge is pretty extensive, while a subgroup who meet all the qualifications for Detroit Promise will have their tuition and fees paid for by our program," Handel said. "Our relationship will continue to work with WSU to provide the same benefit to students and we want to do everything we can to support WSU."

Wayne State's program comes as communities across the country are working to get high school students to go to college and remove cost as a barrier.

The Kalamazoo Promise was the alpha program unveiled in 2005 with the funding of anonymous donors as a way to get students to go to college and also be an economic driver for the western Michigan community. Since then, dozens of free college programs have emerged in various forms across the country.

Michelle Miller-Adams, an Upjohn Institute senior researcher who has studied the free college movement nationally, said Wayne State's program appears to be a repackaging of the Detroit Promise, with a more streamlined message.

"This is mainly a messaging thing, and those can be very powerful and important," said Miller-Adams, who is also a Grand Valley State University professor. "They are trying to make the message clearer and simpler: If you go to high school in Detroit, you can go to Wayne State tuition-free. It’s probably a simpler message than the Detroit promise message."

Adams said the University of Michigan did that with its programs aimed at low-income students and has since got a bump in applications.

"It's a gesture to the community, being the good community citizen," said Adams. "It's also bid to attract more students because all of these schools are fighting over a declining pool of freshmen because the number of high school students is going down."

At the same time, Adams said it could expand the pool for students eligible for scholarship funds for those who do not meet grade point average and SAT score requirements of the Detroit Promise. 

Dawn Medley, Wayne State's associate vice president of enrollment management, said Michigan’s program was created after the university already had an access award for needy students in place. 

"Our Heart of Detroit doesn’t have a need requirement," Medley said. "Detroit Promise has higher academic requirements than our program so we’re expanding access to education." 

Wednesday's announcement comes during Michigan College Month, celebrated in October when students are introduced to FAFSA and ACT/SAT prep programs. 

In 2017, WSU launched the Warrior Way Back program, helping students re-enroll into college by forgiving debt up to $1,500 over three semesters or upon graduation for qualifying students.

"This initiative aligns perfectly with many of our institutional values," said Wilson, WSU's president. "Opportunity, accessibility and affordability are all pillars of the high-quality education we provide, and the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge delivers on all those values."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_