When College Possible Milwaukee begins recruiting a new cohort of students for its programming, at least 60 percent of students it targets don’t believe college is a viable option, according to Edie Turnbull, executive director of the nonprofit organization.
Their reasoning often funnels into a few common threads, including a lack of confidence in their academic strength and an uncertainty in their ability to afford postsecondary education.
College Possible, centered on guiding students through the pathway to college and college graduation, works with low-income students whose families have very few funds, if any, to contribute to continued education.
Over the past three decades, College Possible students and their peers have faced increasing financial barriers to higher education. Statistics Turnbull cites from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveal that the cost of college in the United States currently exceeds 350 percent of the income of the median household.
Colleges have acknowledged that rising costs are concerning, according to Turnbull.
“But until recently, we haven’t seen them doing much about it,” she said.
Recognizing a need to make higher education more accessible, southeastern Wisconsin schools like Milwaukee Area Technical College and Concordia University Wisconsin this year have pioneered innovative tuition models that ease the burden imposed on students.
President Barack Obama’s tuition-free community college plan – the $60 billion America’s College Promise – has propelled much of the conversation around dramatically lowering the cost of higher education, according to Turnbull.
So has a collegiate aim to boost retention and graduation rates.
“I think it comes down to the fact that most schools really do want to see their retention and graduation numbers go up, and in most cases the financial piece is a big part of that,” Turnbull said.
MATC took an unprecedented step in Wisconsin’s higher education landscape in September upon announcing that it would offer free tuition to eligible 2016 high school graduates.
That offer, delivered through a new initiative called the MATC Promise, will cover tuition and fees, after federal and state financial aid has been considered, for high school graduates for four consecutive semesters.
Students benefiting from the program must meet a set of academic and financial criteria, which includes graduating on time, living in the MATC service district, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and having an Expected Family Contribution of $3,000 or less.
While studying at MATC under the program, students must take classes full time, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and fulfill service learning projects, along with academic success and career planning workshops.
MATC president Vicki Martin, Ph.D., is among the lead program architects, having conceived the program idea after Obama released details of America’s College Promise and after she learned more about the Tennessee Promise.
Through the Tennessee Promise, which largely inspired Obama’s plan, students can secure two years of tuition-free attendance at a state community or technical college.
To construct the MATC Promise, Martin and her team also reviewed the no-cost and low-cost tuition models of other institutions across the country and talked to area superintendents, principals and school counselors about the need for more affordable education.
During the program’s first year – applications are due Dec. 1 – MATC will likely cap its enrollment at 1,000 students, with funding provided by the MATC Foundation.
The foundation will supply at least $350,000 to the first program cohort.
Internally, MATC has had to reallocate resources to accommodate the demands of the program, including adding more resources in its financial aid department.
Martin hopes to sustain the MATC Promise long term through an endowment in order to open up educational opportunities that lead to a “strong and competitive economy for us,” she said.
“I really believe for our community and for our region and for our state that this is a way to be a game changer and to turn it around so that young people believe they have a good chance at a better life,” Martin said.
Concordia University Wisconsin, located in Mequon, has also experimented with innovative tuition models. In January, the Lutheran-affiliated four-year school unveiled the Concordia Promise program, which offers students of any Christian high school or home school dual credits at significantly reduced rates.
Concordia Promise students are awarded $150 per credit and, out of their own pocket, pay $50 per credit for up to 36 credits, which translates to one year of academic studies.
Students who choose to pursue their undergraduate degree at Concordia, either at its Mequon campus or its Ann Arbor, Mich. campus, are then eligible for the Concordia Promise Plus, which guarantees them a tuition-back grant equivalent to the amount they paid for their dual credit courses. The tuition-back grant program essentially allows students to complete their first year of college for free.
During the program’s inaugural semester this spring, it drew 85 course seats. This fall, the number of course seats has jumped to 230.
Promise program funding has come from Concordia’s pocket, according to Kathryn Baganz, the university’s director of dual credit.
The university sees its Promise program as a commitment and an investment within the broader church community, Baganz said.
Looking ahead to the sustainability of the program, the school is exploring outside grant funding.
Looking ahead to the future of higher education, Turnbull said these kinds of tuition initiatives will put a college education within clearer reach of economically disadvantaged students.
“It helps low-income students see college as an option,” Turnbull said. “If they hear that schools are trying to make it much more affordable, then they’re going to see college as an option where maybe beforehand they hadn’t.”