The Detroit Promise problem: only a fifth of students attending community college for free graduate

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Detroit Promise scholarship recipient Ava Gaymon, 18, on the campus of Macomb County Community College. - VIOLET IKONOMOVA
  • Violet Ikonomova
  • Detroit Promise scholarship recipient Ava Gaymon, 18, on the campus of Macomb County Community College.
Updated at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, May 1 to include Kellogg Foundation grant

As Detroit officials announce a $3.5 million infusion from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that will allow them to expand a program offering the city’s high school graduates the chance to go to a four-year college or university tuition-free, there's concern over the performance of students enrolled in the longer-standing community college portion of the Detroit Promise program.

While more than 700 students from Detroit are taking advantage of so-called “last-dollar” scholarships offered by the program, Detroit Promise coordinators say few community college scholarship recipients actually make it through to graduation. Only about a third continue on to their second year of study and just under 20 percent end up obtaining their associate’s degree, according to Detroit Regional Chamber senior director of education and talent programs Greg Handel.

Though the percentages are in line with the national average for low-income, first-generation students, Detroit Promise coordinators are hoping to do better and this academic year have added a coaching component aimed to keep kids enrolled.

"A lot of what the coaches do is help kids figure out the bureaucracy of community college," says Detroit Promise coordinator Monica Rodriguez. "It's being able to figure out just how to get [through] so you're eligible for the money that exists for you."

While Rodriguez says students often fail to stay enrolled because they have trouble navigating the college system, "real life issues" like unstable transportation and work also get in the way.

Such is the case for Ava Gaymon, a Detroit Promise recipient enrolled at Macomb Community College. Gaymon's goal is to study nursing at Wayne State University after she obtains her associate's degree, but, between a full class load and near full-time work as a clinician at a drug testing site, she admits she sometimes worries she won't be able to stay on track.

"It [does] get stressful," says Gaymon. "Sometimes I be like man, what am I doing, is this really gonna help me get to where I need to be in the future?"

The 18-year-old has already come a long way, having graduated from  Detroit Public Schools Community District high school performed in the bottom 5% academically in 2015, based on results of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP.

Gaymon, who is among the first generation in her family to attend college, says positive influences have prompted her to pursue higher education. Her three older siblings all went to college, starting with her eldest brother, who attended the University of Toledo on a football scholarship.

"That really motivated me," says Gaymon. "Like, if they can do it, I can do it too."

As she wraps up her first year as a college student, Gaymon has added her coach to that list of positive influences. Twice a month, she says the woman she calls Ms. Harris will give her an added push.

"She says stuff like, 'Whatever you're going through right now, it's gonna pay off in the future, like just keep your head up.' I'm going into ... a very competitive field, but she says don't give up."

Detroit Promise coordinators hope such coaching will help ensure Gaymon returns for her second year of school next fall. Their goal is to double the community college graduation rate among the crop of students who started the program this academic year.


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