'Without that support, I don't know if I would have made it,' student says of Detroit Promise Path

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

As a child, Preston Welborne El never imagined himself going to college, but meeting with a Detroit Promise Path coach sparked his interest in higher education. 

Now a graduate of Oakland Community college who attends the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the 22-year-old was among eight panelists who discussed the Detroit Promise Path during a Detroit News webinar about the program Thursday night. 

Preston Welborne El, 20, after his last final of the semester Dec. 12 at Oakland Community College Orchard Ridge Campus in Farmington Hills.

The event included a special guest appearance by Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, who performed a rap song about the importance of going to college. 

A special report last week by Detroit News Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski examined the successes and shortfalls of the program that provides free community college tuition, a coach and a stipend to help Detroit high school graduates get to the finish line. 

"Without that support, I don't know if I would have made it to this point," said Welborne El, who traveled six hours on three different buses from his home in Detroit to Farmington Hills to attend college classes.  

Kozlowski's report, supported by the Education Writers Association, coincided with the release of a study that found 829 students enrolled in the Detroit Promise Path in 2016 and 2017 did not earn significantly more degrees in three years when compared with 439 students receiving only free tuition in the Detroit Promise. Detroit Promise began in 2013 and grants Detroit students a tuition scholarship for two-year community colleges. A promise program for students to attend four-year universities for free followed.

The randomized controlled study compared the progress of students who received the coaching and stipend provided by the Promise Path with that of students who received a scholarship alone. 

Detroit News columnist Bankole Thompson hosted "Exploring the Promise Path: A Detroit News Webinar" on Zoom on Thursday evening.

The discussion was moderated by Detroit News columnist Bankole Thompson.

Colleen Sommo, principal investigator of the study conducted by New York-based education and social policy research group MDRC, said while the program did not move the needle on graduation, Detroit Promise Path students stayed in community college longer and completed more classes. 

"Many more Detroit Promise Path students enrolled for five or six semesters compared with the scholarship alone group, and after six semesters, the Detroit Promise Path group was ahead by four college credits on average," Sommo said. 

"So there was significant impact in terms of progress, yet after three years we're not seeing evidence of increases in degrees," she noted. "For some students the Promise might not have been enough to overcome some of the barriers." 

Panelist Mark Yancy, a Detroit Promise Path coach at Henry Ford College, said since about 80% of participants are the first in their families to attend college, many are fearful of college and have preconceived notions of expectations. 

"Coaching sessions at the beginning of the semester, we try to pour water on those fears," Yancy said. 

Other panelists included Greg Handel, Detroit Regional Chamber vice president of education and talent; Martha Kanter, former U.S. undersecretary of education and now the CEO of College Promise; Peter Remington, president and CEO of the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation; and Kozlowski. 

Remington of the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, said the program strives to remove obstacles, such as the lack of transportation to get to classes.

One time the answer was as simple as requesting that a bus stop be moved closer to the college, he said.

"We knew from Day One that our goal was to meet the students where they are, not where they wish they were," Remington said. "You've got to set the expectations based on the realities.

"We knew this was a marathon and not a race," he said. "We're in this for the long haul."