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

MATC Free Tuition Program Could Help Adults Looking To Return To College

Courtesy of MATC
MATC's Laura Bray talks with community leaders and business representatives at the Sherman Phoenix on Wednesday. The event was part of an effort to spread the word about MATC's Adult Promise Program.

Just 30% of adults in the city of Milwaukee have a college degree. About 22% completed some college, but didn’t graduate. Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) is bolstering its outreach to those adults, who might be interested in giving college another shot.

The college is partnering with community organizations and businesses to spread the word about one of its promise programs. The promise programs allow certain low-income students to attend the school tuition-free – by utilizing both federal Pell Grants and private donations.

Read: As Free College Tuition 'Promise' Programs Grow, What About Wisconsin?

One of the promise programs is for those coming directly from high school. The other serves adults 24 and up who started college but never finished.

That second group is more difficult to reach.

"When we have high school students that are coming through to MATC, there’s a network of guidance counselors and others that are ready to support and be the funnel for information [about college,]" said MATC Vice President of College Advancement Laura Bray. "That network isn't necessarily in place for returning adults."

When the adult promise program launched in fall 2018, there was a lot of interest. MATC received about 1,800 complete applications, and 530 students qualified.

But applications fell to about a quarter of the original amount for the spring and fall 2019 semesters. So, the school is working on strategies to connect with that harder-to-reach population.  

On Wednesday, MATC leaders held an event at the Sherman Phoenix, meeting with social service agencies and businesses who can spread the word to potential students.

David Comer is an education specialist with the city housing authority. He says he's already been talking to clients about the adult promise program and he plans to continue after this event.

"As a case manager, I speak with many youth and adults about education opportunities," Comer said. "And it's always questions like, 'Well I owe money or I’ve been out of school for such a long time, I have all types of barriers in returning back to school.' "

"It's always questions like, 'Well I owe money or I've been out of school for such a long time, I have all types of barriers in returning back to school.' " - David Comer

Comer says the possibility of free tuition helps convince people that going back to college is possible.

It was crucial for MATC student Janaya Eiland, who is enrolled in the adult promise program. Eiland already had student loan debt from her first attempt at college. She studied music for two years at UWM and MATC before dropping out.

"That's the main reason it took me so long to come back to school," Eiland said. "Because I didn't think there was gonna be anything in place that could help me get further along without the worry of getting further in debt."

Eiland is now at MATC part-time, working toward an associate degree in nursing. She heard about the program from a friend.

MATC is trying to build that word-of-mouth network that is especially impactful for nontraditional students.

Back at the outreach event, Zongcheng Moua, with the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, says he's excited to tell other community leaders about the promise program.

"If you have more educated people in your community, your community will be better and [it will be] better for the state and for the country," he said.

Research does show that a college degree is one of the most powerful drivers of economic mobility. MATC says to boost the number of college-educated people in Milwaukee, you have to expand the focus beyond high school students.  

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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