Helping more Detroit kids gain four-year college degrees

We at Michigan Future believe state leaders should raise living standards for all Michiganders with policies that boost educational attainment, strengthen cities that have potential to attract talented workers and create a stronger social safety net. The Detroit Promise Zone has the potential to accomplish two of these three critical policy objectives by making Detroit a more attractive city for middle class families and boosting the number of Detroit students who receive a post-college educational credential.


Staffed by the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Detroit Promise Zone Authority pays community college tuition for up to three years for any high school graduate who lives in Detroit and has attended a Detroit high school – traditional public, private or charter.  The program, now funded through donations and partnerships with local community colleges, could help lure suburban middle class parents who are worried about college costs to move to the city, a prospect that excites Penny Bailer, a 41-year Detroit resident and former Detroit school board member who serves as the authority’s chair.

“Everyone knows that over the past 40 years, 1.2 million people have left Detroit and most of those were middle- and upper-income people,” said Bailer, a retired nonprofit executive who is seeking a seat on the Detroit Public Schools Community District board. “It devastated our tax base. So we need to bring people back into the city and also to make sure that the families who come back can educate their children. It’s a double dose of greatness for Detroit.”


But while the Detroit Promise’s easier path to a two-year degree is a great start, it’s not enough to prepare Detroit’s workforce for 21st century careers.

Eighty one percent of students entering community college say they plan to get a four-year degree but only 12 percent actually do, according to a 2013 study by the Century Foundation Task force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal.

It matters because a four-year degree is increasingly important as a platform for career and economic stability. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study of median annual earnings for full-time workers between the ages of 25 and 32, holders of an associate’s degree earned $15,500 less than bachelor’s degree holders. Additionally, bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to retain employment even when the economy suffers.

But there are factors beyond salary that make a bachelor’s degree a preferred credential. A bachelor’s degree is a minimum educational requirement for many careers and for admission to graduate school. A four-year degree also gives students access to broader learning opportunities, increased student leadership roles and study abroad options that will make them a more well-rounded and desirable worker.


That’s why I am most excited about the Detroit Promise’s recent extension of “last-dollar” scholarships to Detroit students who wish to attend a Michigan four-year college. This year, 293 Detroit high school graduates are going to four-year colleges using scholarships from the four-year scholarship pilot program.

The rules for the Detroit Promise’s four-year scholarship are more restrictive: They are limited to students who reside and attend all four years of high school in Detroit and who have a minimum grade point average of 3.0 and an ACT score of 21.

Some may think that 3.0 grade point average is too steep a hill for most Detroit students to climb, but there is evidence that students would be better served if secondary schools shifted their instructional focus from navigating standardized tests to boosting students’ ability to earn good grades. After years of lifting up test scores as the most important measure of college readiness, many researchers believe that GPA is a stronger predictor of college success.

And despite the popular belief that good grades are the purview of brainy kids alone, strong grades are really evidence of discipline, strong study habits, motivation and a school culture that normalizes academic excellence. Schools that arm students with these skills and conditions will be rewarded with graduates who are much more likely to succeed in college and life.

Detroit Promise Zone holds a lot of promise as a tool to boost the city’s college-educated workforce and to make Detroit an attractive destination for families. But perhaps the greatest untapped promise of the program is its potential to push K-12 educators and students to focus on the factors that best prepare students for success in college and life.



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