Local leaders call free college a ‘game-changer’


GRCC’s summer Cruisin’ to College and Career Success 2020 program will grow to include 100 high school sophomores. Courtesy GRCC

Grand Rapids leaders expect the recently approved Promise Zone plan to greatly affect future opportunities for local students, especially those who come from low-income backgrounds.

Starting with the class of 2020, students from 22 Grand Rapids public, charter and private high schools can get two years of free tuition for associate degrees, job training and certification programs at Grand Rapids Community College.

The Grand Rapids Promise Zone scholarship is a “last dollar” scholarship. Students are required to complete the FAFSA application to determine available need-based aid. A Grand Rapids Promise Zone scholarship will cover the remaining costs of tuition up to 60 credits, fees, books and required course materials, according to GRPS officials.

To be eligible for the full support, students must start attending a high school within the city of Grand Rapids in 10th grade or before, live in Grand Rapids from 10th grade or before, and graduate. Students who start in 11th grade or move into Grand Rapids in 11th grade still can receive 50% of the scholarship. Those who move or start attending in 12th grade are not eligible.

For low-income students, this means they no longer have to choose between higher education and supporting their families, said GRCC President Bill Pink.

“To say the Promise Zone is a game-changer really doesn’t go far enough,” Pink said.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, Promise Zone Authority board member, shared similar sentiments. So did Teresa Weatherall Neal, authority board chair and former GRPS superintendent.

“When it comes to that barrier of affording college, sometimes it's not as much affording college as it is affording college and everything else,” Pink said. Now, students can use money they would have spent on college to instead support their families, he added.

For students who could only afford one or two classes, they now can afford to become full time if they’d like, making their next life chapter that much closer.

Pink said he expects a fair bump in enrollment, but he expects the Promise Zone to mostly show itself in a higher number of credit hours.

And GRCC will be ready for that increase, Pink said. That means the college will bump up adjunct and full-time faculty — whatever becomes necessary — as well as support services for the increased number of students.

A recent $2.1 million federal grant GRCC received to strengthen such services comes at a convenient time, Pink said.

To the business community, the Promise Zone is a way to combat the ongoing lack of talent, said Omar Cuevas, vice president of sales and marketing for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and member of the Promise Zone Authority board. The chamber’s recent annual survey results showed talent issues as the top concern for area employers.

“What we're addressing today is building that pipeline for the future by being able to make sure that we remove one of those barriers for a lot of our students, including a lot of those students that come from underrepresented communities,” Cuevas said.

For students interested in skilled trades, GRCC has significantly built out its workforce training programs in the last few years.

The Right Place, a Grand Rapids-based economic development organization, has said the Promise Zone will be attractive to businesses seeking graduates ready for the workforce, as well as to workers who want the opportunity available for their children.

Funding and details

According to the Michigan Promise Zones Association, Promise Zone authorities are eligible for state funds beginning in their third year of operation, after two years of funding the program with donations.

Starting with the third year, continued fundraising will pair with a tax capture contribution from the state, which will be half of the funds from state education tax growth within Grand Rapids. After the fifth year, it is estimated the tax capture will be sufficient to cover the entire cost of the scholarship.

The program is estimated to cost about $947,000 in the first year, and estimates increase by about $500,000-$600,000 each year, leading to an estimated cost in 2029-30 of $6.2 million.

To launch the scholarship, the Promise Zone Authority will need to fundraise $3 million from donors or short-term loans to cover the gap — $950,000 for the first year, $1.45 million for the second year and $600,000 to cover the next three years.

GRCC will provide $500,000 in scholarships as part of the program and also has accepted the role of administering the program on behalf of the authority board.

Anonymous donors have agreed to provide upfront funding to enable fundraising of $3 million over the next five years. The authority said it will identify a shortlist of potential major givers and cultivate each one to raise the funds needed.

The program is named after the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship created in 2005 by anonymous donors, which pays in-state college tuition for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates.

The Michigan Promise Zones Association said KPS enrollment in fall 2006 grew by 10%, reversing decades of decline.

Eldorado, Illinois, was next in creating a Promise program, followed by Pittsburgh. There now are nearly 100 U.S. communities with a program.

Ten Michigan Promise Zones, including in the Muskegon County Intermediate School District and other “economically distressed communities,” were established in 2009 by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. In 2017, former Gov. Rick Snyder expanded the number of Promise Zones from 10 to 15.

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