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On the way for future GR grads: the promise of college funding

Promise Zone designation a “game-changer” for city students

In what officials call a “game-changer” for students, future Grand Rapids Public Schools graduates could be guaranteed a tuition-free education at a Michigan college or university, now that the district has been designated a state Promise Zone.

GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal announced this week that the Michigan Department of Treasury approved the designation, which would benefit not just GRPS graduates but students in the city’s private and charter schools. They will qualify for scholarships and fees to pay for at least a two-year associate degree — and possibly a bachelor’s degree — at one or more state schools.

The district Board of Education is expected to vote Sept. 17 to approve establishment of a Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority, and beginning a process to appoint authority members to develop a plan and specify its scope. Crucial to the program, the authority will be tasked with raising private donations to fully fund the scholarships for the first two years, after which state funds would help foot the bill.

“This is a game-changing opportunity for children and families throughout Grand Rapids,” Neal said. “While I know this is just the first step in a process, I cannot deny my excitement about the potential of what this may mean for the future of our community’s children.”

How long it will take to start providing scholarships remains to be seen, officials say. By law the district has up to five years to have a development plan approved by the state, but Neal and others are working diligently to “see this up and running as soon as possible,” said district communications director John Helmholdt.

“That’s going to come down to how quickly the Promise Zone authority can be appointed, and how quickly the dollars can be raised,” Helmholdt said. “We are as eager as our constituents and stakeholders to get this up and running, so this opportunity can be available to our community’s children.”

Places of Promise

Promise Zones award scholarships which, combined with other sources such as Pell Grants, fully cover recipients’ tuition and fees at Michigan colleges and universities. Details to be fleshed out in Grand Rapids include:

  • Some zones offer coverage for associate degrees at community colleges, while others cover costs for bachelor’s-granting institutions. Scholarships can be applied to one or more colleges, and to both public and private institutions. Non-degree programs and technical schools can be included.
  • The GRPS coverage plan would be determined by a zone authority of 11 members, nine of them selected by the school district and two by Michigan legislators. The authority will decide parameters for funding and colleges covered, and qualifications such as grade-point requirements and how long a student has attended school in the district.
  • Funds are raised through private donations and, beginning in the third year of the program, may come from the state through tax-increment financing. The zone can capture half the growth of its six-mill state education property tax.
  • Students must first apply for federal need-based aid such as Pell Grants, with the scholarships covering the remainder of their tuition and mandatory fees.

Source: Michigan Promise Zones Association

We’ve Got You Covered

GRPS is now one of 15 entities eligible to establish Promise Zones. Communities and districts with state-approved designations include the Lansing school district, the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District and Newaygo County.

Michigan has been a national pioneer in establishing Promise Zones. It began in 2005 when the Kalamazoo Promise was instituted, providing all Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates with full tuition scholarships to any Michigan university or community college. By 2006, enrollment had grown by 10 percent, and an increased number of Kalamazoo graduates have obtained college degrees, according to the Michigan Promise Zones Association.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm subsequently called for establishing Promise Zones in economically distressed communities, and the program was signed into law in 2009. Gov. Rick Snyder last year approved a bipartisan bill expanding the number of zones from 10 to 15.

For GRPS students, the zone is a “game-changer” in access to higher education and building credentials for the job market, Helmholdt said.

“This is removing a major barrier to gaining access to college,” he said. “This would give our Grand Rapids students a leg up in this highly competitive world, where many of our students have struggled to make that college-going opportunity a reality.”

For many students and families, he added, “They see the price tag and that scares them off from even applying to a school.”

Major Decisions Ahead

Once the authority is approved by the school board as expected, Neal will recommend nine appointees for the 11-person authority, the other two being named by state legislators. No more than three may be public officials. Neal’s options will include representatives of private and parochial schools since their students also qualify for scholarships.

Authority members then must decide weighty questions, such as whether students who attend city schools but do not live in the city should qualify, or whether recipients must maintain a certain college course load.

Key to the program’s success will be the authority’s ability to raise the necessary funds. Even after state funding becomes available in the third year, some local contribution likely will be necessary, Helmholdt said. However, he said he is confident sufficient local funds can be raised to launch and sustain the scholarships.

“We’ve had conversations with local foundations and business leaders who have expressed interest in support” of the program, he said. “Everybody’s saying they want more information.”

GRPS already offers up to four-year full-tuition scholarships to Union High School graduates, beginning in 2020, through the Challenge Scholars Program funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.


How do Promise Zones work? A primer

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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