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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Outstanding debt can prevent MATC scholarship recipients from enrolling at the school

MATC student Reggie Leslie and MATC FAST Fund director Liz Franczyk. The FAST Fund helped Leslie pay about owed MATC, in order for him to enroll using his PepsiCo Uplift scholarship.
Emily Files
MATC student Reggie Leslie and MATC FAST Fund director Liz Franczyk. The FAST Fund helped Leslie pay about $800 he owed MATC, in order for him to enroll using his PepsiCo Uplift scholarship.

In recent years, Milwaukee Area Technical College has announced two new major scholarships: the full-ride Checota scholarship and the PepsiCo Uplift scholarship for Black and Hispanic students.

But some of those scholarship recipients can’t enroll at MATC, because they owe the school money from past classes.

A faculty union-run emergency aid program, called the FAST Fund, is drawing attention to this issue. The FAST Fund says in just the past six months, it’s helped 125 Checota scholars and 48 Pepsi Uplist scholars pay their debts so they could utilize the scholarships.

In the past three years, FAST Fund Director Liz Franczyk says the FAST Fund has paid about $300,000 in student debt to MATC.

At Milwaukee Area Technical College, instructors banded together a few years ago to create an emergency financial aid fund for students. It’s on track to help more students than ever this year.

One example is Reggie Leslie, 34, who aspires to earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at MSOE. He's been taking courses at MATC in preparation to transfer, and he received the $2,000 Pepsi Uplift scholarship to help.

Then, Leslie realized he couldn't enroll in classes because of about $860 he owed MATC.

"I was told, 'If you don't have the money, you can't go,'" Leslie says. "You tell me 'no', you're setting me back another year. It was a small debt, if you can't pay it, you can't enroll. That sucked."

Leslie says someone at MATC told him about the FAST Fund, which he had never heard of before.

Franczyk says the FAST Fund paid one-third of Leslie's debt, about $220 dollars, so he could get on a payment plan and enroll in classes using his scholarship.

"In my mind, it's as if the college is sort of handing out this money with one hand and knocking it away with the other," Franczyk says. "I think it's so unfortunate a student could be told, 'Hey, we're going to give you a full-ride scholarship, but we won't give you this money until you pay this $200 in debt."

Franczyk says small amounts of money can be huge barriers. MATC is majority-minority, and most students are low or moderate-income. "Community college is there to let people lift themselves out of poverty or situations where they can make more money and get better jobs. And I think we need to do more [to help them.]"

MATC has its own debt relief options for students, including a program called ReStart.

In a statement, MATC spokesperson Darryll Fortune said the school "is committed to eliminating barriers for students in accessing their education."

"For scholarship programs, if students cannot register because of past debt, we intentionally direct them to programs like ReStart, Reconnect or devising a payment plan to help them register," said Fortune. "We have added caseworkers to assist with this."

Franczyk says MATC's in-house debt forgiveness options aren't accessible to some students. For example, ReStart isn't available for students who have taken classes within the past year or who already have associate's degrees.

Franczyk says the FAST Fund's motto is "believe students" and it doesn't make them "prove their poverty."

"We can make changes, we can help these students," says Franczyk. "Why aren't we?"


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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