Rubin: The Detroit Promise has, well, promise

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

How’s this for a sales pitch for the Detroit Promise:

The less debt young people have, the more quickly they can become productive members of society.

That was one reaction from Wayne State University student Kevin Miller when he heard about the new program that will put high school graduates from Detroit through community college for free.

Here’s another: “The success of your people brings about the success of your nation.”

And: “If there’s nothing holding you back, there’s no excuse for not giving your best effort.”

Miller, 21, an eastsider and Cass Tech alumnus, thought briefly about becoming a lawyer. Then he reflected on his own absurd medical history—– broken bones in both hands and wrists, facial fractures after plummeting from a tree, repeatedly broken nose, broken big toe — and decided to become a doctor.

Sadly, he says, he knows a lot of bright young people who didn’t even attempt college because they didn’t want to take on heavy debt.

Personally, he says he’s about 80 percent done with a bachelor’s degree — and, despite a full-time job with the campus parking department, nearly $50,000 in the hole.

To him, the Promise sounds eminently promising.

It’s already being criticized in some quarters, of course, typically by the same people who can’t see why fast-food workers are dissatisfied with $8.50 an hour.

Now comes a program designed to help teenagers aim higher, but somehow that’s a bad thing, too. Darned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Luring people to the city

Mayor Mike Duggan announced the creation of the Detroit Promise earlier this week. It will guarantee that every graduate who completes at least the last two years of high school in Detroit can receive free tuition and fees for three years or until the completion of an associate’s degree, whichever comes first.

Redeemable at Henry Ford, Wayne, Oakland, Macomb or Schoolcraft College, it will be paid for with grants and donations for several years.

Ultimately, it’s expected to qualify for tax capture, reclaiming a portion of the state education taxes generated in the city. Recipients will be required to apply for federal Pell Grants, with the Detroit Promise picking up whatever part of the tab remains unpaid.

The program is benefit and bait, intended to lure in nonresidents and lure back some of the 25,000 Detroit students attending high school outside the city limits.

It’s no surprise that young students like it. What’s telling is how closely an informal survey matched the goals.

Jasmine Pearson of Detroit says it would have worked on her.

Pearson, 23, spent two years at Crockett High in Detroit, then finished at Clintondale High in Clinton Township. Now she’s working in the paint shop at a Chrysler plant and taking classes at the Wayne County Community College District campus downtown.

A future nurse, she attacks her anatomy and anthropology assignments during breaks at Jefferson North Assembly.

“I would have stayed in Detroit” had the Promise existed back then, she says — and she might already be an RN.

Students see opportunity

George Thebolt went from University of Detroit Jesuit High to the University of Michigan — and then left during his freshman year because he couldn’t afford it.

At 25, he’s tending bar in Greektown, taking a full load of classes at WCCCD and hoping someday to return to school in Ann Arbor.

“I had a little too much ego to go to community college at the time,” Thebolt says. “In hindsight, it would have been the smart thing to do.”

At current rates, a WCCCD associate’s degree would cost about $6,600, one-quarter of the cost of a year on campus at UM. It’s not much, unless you don’t have it.

Miller, the Wayne State student whose assorted fractures made him want to be a doctor, says he recently heard about a two-year program that would have made him a $60,000-per-year cardiovascular surgical technologist.

With that income, he could have finished his bachelor’s degree debt-free.

It’s too late for him. But as for his four younger siblings, their peers, and everyone who will graduate in Detroit after them?

He says break a leg.