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Institutions Turn to Tuition Assistance Programs to Pull More Students into College


Money is often a barrier to people thinking about attending college, so the Milwaukee Area Technical College has unveiled a plan to help qualifying low-income students pay their way. It's called the MATC Promise. Starting in fall of 2016, it will offer free tuition for four consecutive semesters. Similar programs exist across the country with the ultimate goal of reducing poverty.

Tuition for a full-time student at MATC is about $2,000 a semester. While it may not sound like a lot, it is, for a lot of Milwaukee families, according to MATC President Vicki Martin. In fact, 83 percent of students enrolled in Milwaukee Public Schools fall into the low-income category. Martin hopes the free tuition program her college will begin offering will help more MPS grads think of enrolling – and at least earn an associate’s degree.

“I think if you look at every study that’s out there and if you look at everyone who speaks about how to overcome poverty, you’ll find that education is absolutely key to doing that,” Martin says.

Martin says  MATC is working to raise about $1 million in private money for the scholarships. It would cover tuition for the first 1,000 students to qualify next fall. The standards would include that the student finish high school with a 2.0 GPA, maintain good grades in college and perform community service work.

Several states are experimenting with tuition-assistance programs. For example, the Tennessee Promise. It offers high school seniors free tuition to community college, but the program is funded with government money and has no income requirements. Its first group of students recently started college and boosted enrollment at the state’s two-year institutions.

In Michigan, the Kalamazoo Promise has been around for about a decade. Private donations allow public school graduates there to attend any state college. Bob Jorth is executive director.

“There’s been research done on attendance, behavior and grades and test scores. And virtually, all the research that I’ve seen has been positive since the promise was announced,” Jorth says.

Jorth says about 95 percent of graduates are now at least starting college, but completion is a problem.

“Paying for somebody to be able to go to college is the easiest part of this,” says Chuck Wilbur, a public policy analyst in Michigan.

“The hard problems are things like helping kids get the academic readiness that they need to be able to succeed in college. To get them into college they need to navigate a college system that if they’re a first generation college student as many of our students are those are the difficult things. Those are kind of hearts and minds problems and you can’t solve them just by paying a tuition bill,” Wilbur says.

In Pennsylvania, about 5,600 students have taken part in the Pittsburgh Promise over the last few years. About 1,000 of them have earned degrees and are employed in the region. Coordinators recently decided to readjust some of the guidelines. For instance, they had expanded the program to include room and board, but are now scaling back to tuition and fees, so more students can take part. Just as with the MATC Promise, Pittsburgh requires its low-income students to first apply for federal aid, promising that the tuition program will cover the difference.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.