Jacques: Translate 'free college' into more graduates

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson announces the free tuition program for Detroiters.

Wayne State University’s recent announcement that it will offer free tuition to Detroit freshmen is no doubt welcome news to students and families throughout the city. 

Yet simply growing enrollment does not necessarily translate to more students with degrees. 

Cost is certainly a barrier for many low-income students. But it’s not the only one.

Many Motor City students also struggle more than their counterparts around Michigan as they are more likely to be first generation college students. And many are coming from Detroit schools that haven’t adequately prepared them for rigorous coursework. 

Administrators at Wayne State are aware of these challenges, and are putting safeguards in place to ensure more students who enroll will be successful in their college experience. 

Starting in fall 2020, incoming freshmen will be able to attend fall and winter semesters at the university without the weight of tuition and fees.Students don’t have to meet any special requirements — just meet basic admission benchmarks. 

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

More:Jacques: Before 'free' college, fix the schools

The Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge is expected to attract an additional 100-125 students a year, says Dawn Medley, associate vice president for enrollment management at Wayne State. The cost will be covered in part through $90 million in endowed scholarships along with institutional funds, and she says tuition will not be raised for other students.

“We want students to understand that college is possible,” Medley says. 

Wayne State has long struggled with low graduation rates, especially for its minority students. But a concerted effort by the university to target student challenges is helping turn those numbers around. 

It is now recognized as one of the fastest improving large institutions in the country for its boosted graduation numbers. Medley points to a focus on academic advising and helping students meet their basic needs, including food and housing. 

Monica Brockmeyer, WSU’s senior associate provost for student success, says the university has increased its six-year graduation rate to 48% in 2019 from just 26% in 2011. 

Black and Hispanic students continue to struggle, but are also seeing marked progress: 24% of black students now graduate, up from 8% in 2011; for Hispanic students, the rate is 39%, up from 17%. 

Because of its progress, WSU in 2018 received the Degree Completion Award by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities.

Greg Handel, vice president of education and talent for the Detroit Regional Chamber, understands the roadblocks facing Detroit youths. Since 2013, the chamber has administered the Detroit Promise program that offers taxpayer-funded scholarships to city high school graduates for community college. The program also runs a separate four-year college scholarship. More than 3,500 students have participated to date. 

When it got off the ground, the program had a difficult time attracting students to apply, and ones that participated didn’t often stick around for a second year. 

Those numbers are starting to improve, as the chamber has begun matching students with campus coaches and other assistance. Handel says 67% of four-year students are still enrolled by the third year. Plus, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has hired 20 college transition advisers, which he says is hugely helpful. 

The chamber, along with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and business leaders, is pushing for 60% of residents to have a post-high school degree or certification. The state average is currently about 45%, but in Detroit it’s lower. 

“There is more awareness around opportunities for higher ed,” Handel says. “It helps us to our ultimate goal of increasing the number of individuals with a post-secondary degree.”

And it seems locally-run programs like Detroit Promise are best suited to understand the needs of students in their communities. That’s something for the governor, who has called for more intervention at the state level, to consider.