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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced last week a program that would offer two years of free community college to all city high school graduates. While that’s good news to a city in need of more education, the challenge will be adequately preparing Detroit students so they can take advantage of the opportunity.

The new Detroit Promise Zone will eventually dedicate a portion of tax dollars to fund the two-year scholarship program. It will benefit all city students, including those who attend charter and private schools. There are no income restrictions to participate.

In the meantime, the Detroit Scholarship Fund will continue to operate the program, as it has since 2013. The scholarships are supported by the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, which receives funds from companies, nonprofits and individuals, and are operated by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

The program will offer all students graduating this spring two years of tuition-free schooling that could translate into an associate degree or technical certificate at one of five participating community colleges.

Shortly after taking office, Gov. Rick Snyder said he wanted to provide Detroit high school graduates with the option of a free community college experience. The chamber’s program was designed to meet this benchmark.

It’s a worthy goal. As Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Chamber, says, more educational attainment is key to Detroit’s recovery, and the chamber is working to boost the number of area residents who have some degree or certificate beyond high school. Right now, about 25 percent meet that standard, but Baruah would like to raise the number to at least 40 percent.

The scholarship fund is one piece that can help meet that target.

“There is no silver bullet for the economic challenge facing Detroit,” he says. “This is one element of the things that must happen in concert.”

In the years the chamber has run the program, scholarship coordinators have registered roughly 3,200 out of Detroit’s 5,000 seniors each year. About 500 of those students actually enroll in classes each fall through the fund. That’s a fairly good number, although there’s clearly room for growth.

Fewer students — about 110 per class — have taken advantage of the chamber’s Detroit Compact four-year college scholarship program. A new pilot version of that scholarship is now available to city students.

“We’ve already demonstrated the program works,” Baruah says. “It’s just a matter of how many will take advantage of it.”

The number taking advantage of the program is important, but the greater challenge is keeping students in college. Only 35 percent return for the second year of community college, according to the chamber.

That’s largely because many Detroit students aren’t graduating from high school prepared to do college-level work. Detroit Public Schools continues to hold its place as the worst urban school district in the country.

Although the scholarship fund covers remedial courses, it only applies to two years of college. That means if students have to spend much of the first year doing makeup work, then they’d likely be on the hook for paying for a third year.

So improving the city’s K-12 schools is just as important as giving students access to community college. But the promise of free college should help more students feel that a higher education is within their reach.

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