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Car repairs and rent checks: a bold plan to keep Michigan students in college

Returning to college at an age when others were watching their children get diplomas was tough for Sherrie Graham.

Not the classes, though coursework in the nursing associate’s degree program at St. Clair County Community College was hard.

The toughest part of college took place miles from campus in a tiny apartment two years ago, when the 51-year-old put down her textbooks and looked at her checkbook.

“I honestly didn’t know how I was going to pay my rent,” Graham recalled.

At many colleges across Michigan, that moment might have been the end of Graham’s education. But Graham paid her rent and earned her degree thanks to an innovative scholarship that turns college financial aid on its head – instead of providing money only to get students into college, it primarily helps them stay in college.

The Complete Your Degree scholarship, offered through the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, funds things that typically make nontraditional students dropout of college, such as a late rent payment, car repairs, a child’s medical bill or babysitting.

It’s Michigan’s only program of its kind – a “life needs” scholarship aimed squarely at the students most likely to have trouble completing a degree. While it’s currently offered only to St. Clair County residents attending St. Clair County Community College, the program may offer a blueprint for new state leaders hoping to address a major Michigan problem – getting students from campus orientation to graduation.

One such possibility where a “life needs” scholarship would fit may already be in the works - Michigan Reconnect, a program pitched during the gubernatorial campaign of new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, would offer financial aid to nontraditional college students.  

A dropout dilemma

While Michigan is about average at getting students into two- and four-year colleges, the state does a lousy job keeping them there long enough to earn a degree. In fact, almost one-in-four Michigan adults 25 or older have some college credits but no degree, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of U.S. Census data. That’s the highest college dropout rate in the Midwest.

Nationally, Michigan ranks 15th in the percent of high school grads entering two- or four-year college (61 percent), but drops to 32nd in graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees after six years (51 percent).

Michigan ranks 47th in the nation in three-year completion rates for Associate’s degrees (15 percent).

Related: Michigan’s college dropout dilemma

All told, about 1.2 million Michigan residents reside in the economic limbo, often over-qualified for high school graduate jobs but stopped short of the qualifications needed for college degree-required jobs.

The lack of a completed degree costs them, on average, hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes, and in turn hobbles the economic progress of the state as it scrambles to fill jobs that increasingly require a post-high school degree or certificate.

Yet Michigan’s college financial aid system is geared toward traditional college students straight out of high school. In fact, Michigan offers no financial aid for people who are more than 10 years out of high school.

Traditional scholarships, offered by universities and community organizations, focus on getting students into college and paying their school-related bills such as tuition. But one of the major reasons students dropout of college and hesitate to return isn’t about tuition; it’s about what Brandy Johnson calls “life.”

“A car breaks down,” said Johnson, executive director of Michigan College Access Network, an organization that works with low-income and rural students. “Housing becomes insecure. You get pregnant or you don’t have childcare.”

Of course “life” isn’t the only reason students drop out of college ‒ some struggle with coursework or don’t feel they fit in on campus. Universities are beginning to try to address issues that cause students to leave campus early, such as reducing remedial courses that don’t count toward a degree, or hiring more academic counselors to work with students at risk of dropping out.

A ‘security blanket’ for vulnerable students

Melissa Amos knows all about the challenges of “life.” She started college a decade ago at Western Michigan University but dropped out before getting a degree. As a single mom, she sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet.

“Once I had a child, I stopped trying to go back to school,” said Amos, 34, of Port Huron. “When you have a kid, they're your top priority. So for me, it was like: How do I go back to school, even if I were able to come up with a way to go to school? What if something were to happen? I would have to drop out because I need to make sure my kids’ needs are met.”

She’s now back in school, courtesy of a Complete Your Degree scholarship she describes as a “security blanket.” So far, she’s used the scholarship just to cover college costs, but she knows she can access more funds if needs arise that might otherwise force her to quit.

“It’s like a security blanket to have that if something happens, I'm able, you know to just shoot an email or call and know that they'll be there (to help with money),” Amos said. “Just knowing that they're there, I’m not as stressed. If, you know, life happens, am I going to drop out of school? No, I won’t now.”

Now in its second year, there are 35 students at the community college who’ve received the Complete Your Degree scholarship from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. The students receiving scholarships are financially vulnerable and already have some college experience.  Of those 35, only one has dropped out of school – a remarkable track record at a community college where only 41 percent complete a certificate or associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year university within three years of enrollment.

The scholarship program also includes intensive college counseling – helping students who’ve been away from college for a decade or more figure out how to buy textbooks and sign up for the right classes.

“Just having that support,” said Katherine Muxlow, a 27-year-old single mom from Port Huron, “knowing that I'm a single mom that works 50 to 60 hours a week that's going back to school, that support lets me know I can do this.”

That’s exactly what the foundation was hoping for when it launched the scholarship program in 2017 to address the county’s low college grad rate.

In St. Clair County, at the base of Michigan’s thumb, 18 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 28 percent statewide and 31 percent nationally; 29 percent of St. Clair adults have an Associate’s degree or higher (compared to 38 percent statewide).

In the county, 26 percent of adults are college dropouts, meaning one in four are part-way to a degree. Getting a sheepskin in their hands is a good way to improve the county’s economy, said Audrey Sochor of the St. Clair Community Foundation.

“We have so much talent here,” Sochor said. “We have so much people here who want to have a degree and a good job, and they're more likely to stay here so we wanted to help them.”

In the three semesters the scholarship programs has existed, the foundation has spent $109,000, with money coming primarily from existing scholarship funds, as well as funding for staff support from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr Foundation, a Detroit- and New York-based foundation that, among other focus projects, funds efforts to help young adults and working families.

The average age of Complete Your Degree scholarship recipients is 25, compared to an average age of 19 for recipients of the community foundation’s traditional scholarships. Almost a quarter of Complete Your Degree recipients are single parents, and one in 10 are over 40 years old.

It’s the only program of its kind in the state, but if it is successful, it could be copied by other foundations or by the state itself, said MCAN’s Johnson.

“I do think a state financial aid program for adult "stop-outs" or those with "some college, no credential" is scalable when combining federal resources from Pell Grants and various federal workforce development dollars,” Johnson said. “Gretchen Whitmer expressed interest in this on the campaign trail.”

Whitmer, Michigan’s newly elected governor, has advocated for a Michigan version of Tennessee Reconnect, which focuses on helping Tennessee residents age 25 and older return to college to complete their degrees.

Called “Michigan Reconnect,” Whitmer’s program would offer financial assistance to older, nontraditional students hoping to earn a degree or certificate. The details of the proposed “Michigan Reconnect are few, but the description on Whitmer’s campaign website does not include “life needs” funding like St. Clair’s Complete Your Degree scholarship.

“We’ve been front-loading scholarships to get students into college,” Sochor, of the community foundation, said. “There's nothing set in stone that says they have to continue to give financial aid only to 18 year olds.”

Sherrie Graham has come a long way from being a college dropout worrying about how to pay the rent. She now works at Detroit Receiving Hospital while completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing – something she says wouldn’t have been possible without rent assistance and a few well-timed gas and grocery gift cards from the Complete Your Degree scholarship.

“Things are going really well now,” Graham said. “I want to contribute to the (community) foundation so I can help another student out.”

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