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Tuition-free college approved for Grand Rapids students

MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo logo MLive - GrandRapids/Muskegon/Kalamazoo 1/13/2020 By Cheyna Roth, mlive.com
a person standing in front of a group of people posing for the camera: Hedy Cardenas (left) and Pedro Gutierrez © Cheyna Roth | croth@mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Hedy Cardenas (left) and Pedro Gutierrez

GRAND RAPIDS, MI - Students who live in Grand Rapids and graduate from a high school within the city limits are on track to start getting free college tuition, starting with the Class of 2020.

The Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority Board of Directors signed off on a plan Monday, Jan. 13 that would give students a chance to have up to 60 credit hours - or two years - paid for at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC).

a group of people in a room: Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink speaks to the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority Board on Monday, Jan. 13, prior to its vote to approve begin awarding scholarships beginning with the Class of 2020. © Cheyna Roth | croth@mlive.com/mlive.com/TNS Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink speaks to the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority Board on Monday, Jan. 13, prior to its vote to approve begin awarding scholarships beginning with the Class of 2020.

There are 22 eligible high schools - traditional public, charter and private.

Pedro Gutierrez, 17, said he plans to use the scholarship when he graduates from Innovation Central High School, which is in the Grand Rapids School District. His said his family has been struggling financially.

“Being able to hear that we don’t have to pay and I’m to work to support the bills and stuff for my family, something great to hear," he said.

“Makes someone feel happy. It takes out the struggle.”

GRCC President Bill Pink said that the community college has a long history of partnering with the community and is a “natural choice for the community of Grand Rapids" to administer the program.

“We know that there are barriers around transportation, childcare, food," Pink said.

“What this does is, and what it will mean for our community, is that it will take one of those barriers off the table for many of these students. The barrier of cost.”

In order to qualify for the scholarship, aside from residency, students must apply for federal financial aid through completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year.

Once the student’s total need-based grants are determined, eligible students would receive a scholarship to pay the remainder of their bill for tuition and mandatory fees.

Teresa Weatherall Neal is the chairperson of the authority that authorized the promise zone. She said at the Monday press conference announcing the funding that this move is huge for young people in the Grand Rapids community.

“This is a game-changer for families and for young people,” she said.

“It is not just about them though. This will also be a game changer for our business community, for our children to be able to go to our community college without the debt.”

The scholarships don’t just cover the tuition for a certificate or associate degree at Grand Rapids Community College. Students will also receive money for books, supplies, and fees associated with their courses. Students can go to school full-time or part-time and will have five years to get their degree or certificate.

The authority expects 267 total students to receive the scholarship during its first year, based on data collected from Kennari Consulting.

The authority estimates that it will need $2.9 million for the first five years to meet its financial obligations. In order to do that, the scholarship will be funded using a combination of private and corporate donations and investments.

After two years, the scholarship will also be funded in part by capturing “tax increment financing funds."

That means that a portion of the City of Grand Rapids State Education Tax will be set aside for the promise. While the promise zone will start collecting that money in 2020, it won’t be able to use it until 2022.

Within the first 10 years, the promise zone is expected to capture $30,535,913, with a projected 10-year cost of $22,245,251.

The tax capture money is expected to fully fund the promise within five years, said John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

The authority also plans to explore whether the promise can be extended and apply to a two-year degree at other schools, and whether it could fund four-year degrees, Helmholdt said.

“The cost difference though, when you run those numbers, is substantial. You’re getting into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said.

“So the tax capture would never be enough to cover that cost, and that’s what the board said, we need to get going right now for the class of 2020 so we can trigger that tax capture.”

The first two years will primarily be funded through community fundraising. However, the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation announced Monday that it will give $500,000 to the promise zone.

“Because it’s important to us,” Pink told the authority about its donation and its partnership with the authority to administer the scholarships.

“We’re happy to do both of those things, friends, because it means that much to our kids, to our children. It means that much to our community.”

The development plan still needs final approval from the Michigan Department of Treasury, but the authority is moving ahead with the plan.

There is a website in place to give students and families information about how to apply for the scholarship, and the authority is working on other ways for teachers, schools, etc to spread the word about the promise.

Students who start at a qualified school in 9th and 10th grade will be eligible for 100-percent of the scholarship benefit. Students who start at a qualified school in 11th grade will be eligible for 50-percent of the scholarship benefit. Students who only go to a qualified school during their senior year are not eligible.

There is no GPA requirement.

The 22 schools that are currently eligible are:

Grand Rapids City High School

Grand Rapids University Prep

Innovation Central High School

Ottawa Hills High School

Union High School

Grand Rapids Montessori High School

C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy

Grand Rapids Public Museum School

Grand Rapids Learning Center

Lake Michigan Academy

Southwest Community Campus High School

Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School

Sacred Heart Academy High School

Grand Rapids Christian High School

West Catholic High School

Grand Rapids Adventist Academy

Wellspring Preparatory High School

Hope Academy of West Michigan

Grand Rapids Covenant House Academy

NorthPointe Christian High School

Plymouth Christian High School

Southeast Career Pathways

In November 2017, former Gov. Rick Snyder, signed legislation increasing the number of promise zones from 10 to 15, creating the opportunity for Grand Rapids.

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