Free tuition programs aimed at providing opportunity, addressing workforce shortages

Special report: Higher education & research

MATC Promise donor Chris Abele; David Dull, former chairperson of the MATC district board; and Vicki Martin, MATC president.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 01:31 pm

As worker shortages and college affordability remain persistent challenges in southeastern Wisconsin, more than 1,200 students have enrolled at Milwaukee Area Technical College through a free tuition program aimed at tackling both of those issues.

In the fall of 2015, the college was the first in the state to launch a Promise program, which provides free tuition to qualifying low-income high school graduates from the college’s service district.

When MATC leaders decided to roll out the program, it was driven by a sense of urgency, said Vicki Martin, president of MATC.

“People came together and said, ‘We’re going to do this,’” Martin said. “We didn’t want to lose another senior class in high school who could take advantage of this because what we’ve found is that so many students who are low-income, first-generation, historically underserved students didn’t believe they could afford to go to college.”

The MATC Promise program covers tuition and fees for program courses for up to 75 credits.

Across MATC’s district – which includes all of Milwaukee County and portions of Ozaukee and Washington counties – there are more than 75,000 low-income students, Martin said. Since the program launched, 514 qualified students have enrolled at the college through the program, which is publicly and privately funded.

Meanwhile, 135,000 people in Milwaukee County have completed some college but don’t have a degree. MATC expanded the Promise program in 2018 in an effort to help returning college students receive credentials.

The MATC Promise for Adults program extends free tuition to students 24 years and older who are living in the college district and have already completed some college credits. It provides up to 75 credits toward an associate degree that is tied to a top 50 in-demand career in Wisconsin. Those degree programs include STEM fields, construction, health care, manufacturing, hospitality and tourism, among others.

Both programs are last-dollar scholarships, meaning they cover the gap after other aids and scholarships are applied. MATC also assists returning students in getting out of student loan default.

Nearly 3,330 prospective students expressed interest in the MATC Promise for Adults for 2018-’19. About 1,000 of those students enrolled, including 689 who met all qualifications.

“The MATC Promise for Adults generated a tremendous amount of interest last year,” Martin said. “We are excited to offer the program for additional students for the next academic year.”

The program is particularly focused on training workers to fill so-called “middle-skill” jobs: those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

For students, the program provides a significant opportunity, Martin said.

“They’re adults; they’ve already been there before,” she said. “They’ve come back and now they’re determined. We’ve gotten them out of default, and now they can get on track to pay it off and be eligible again for Pell. We work with them on internships and other things they can do to make sure they’re on the right path and in a career they’re interested in.”

Between the two Promise programs, more than 1,200 students have enrolled at MATC, earning a cumulative 20,000 college credits.

The MATC Foundation Inc. has received more than $2 million from more than 230 donors to support its Promise programs. The largest donor, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, personally gave $250,000 for the MATC Promise for New High School Graduates and an additional $500,000 for the MATC Promise for Adults.

Gateway Technical College in Kenosha also launched a Promise program in 2015 for qualifying high school graduates. The program has seen traction among students, with more than 300 currently participating.

Gateway Promise provides three years of free tuition to eligible students in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties. The college recently reported that nearly nine out of 10 Promise students remained in college after their first semester, compared to a national average of five of every 10.

The GTC Foundation recently surpassed its initial fundraising target by nearly $1 million to support the program, raising $3.93 million for the program.

Lakeland University in Sheboygan County recently announced it would build off of MATC’s program by offering free tuition to qualifying students seeking their bachelor’s degree.

Lakeland has established a scholarship fund to extend the opportunity to graduating MATC Promise students who go on to attend the university full-time. For many of the students, the scholarship will cover all tuition after federal and state financial grant aid has been applied.

David Black, president of Lakeland University, said MATC and Lakeland serve similar student populations.

“We’re a lot alike, not in just those whom we educate, but in how we see the world,” Black said. “So when (MATC leaders) talked about the Promise program, my gosh, the very spirit was exciting to us.”

It also builds on other efforts by Lakeland to minimize debt among its graduates. The university recently rolled out a cooperative education model that allows students to gain 12 to 18 months of professional work experience with area companies, while earning an estimated $100,000 in wages and scholarships over four years to defray tuition costs.

“When there’s $1.6 trillion of student debt (nationally), shame on us,” Black said. “We all need to work to do something about this.”

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