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GRPS students could receive free college

State designates Grand Rapids as one of 15 Michigan Promise Zones.

September 14, 2018
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) High school graduates in Grand Rapids might receive free college education.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools District was designated as one of 15 Michigan Promise Zones, meaning the state could begin awarding in-state college and trade school scholarships to graduates of all public, private and charter school graduates within the district.

The Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education will vote to accept the offer at its Sept. 17 meeting, said GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, who pursued the designation after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced the addition of five new zones last year.

All graduates within the city would be promised free tuition for at least two-year degrees, funded first by Pell grants and other needs-based grants, with outstanding tuition paid by the Promise Zone scholarships. Individual zones can decide to extend funding to cover up to four-year degrees.

“This is an economic development strategy,” Weatherall Neal said. “This will be a game-changer for this community, and it’s our hope that young people want to stay in our community.”

Business and talent attraction efforts of the Grand Rapids-based economic development organization The Right Place likely would benefit from the designation, said Tim Mroz, the organization’s vice president of marketing and communications.

“The designation of Grand Rapids as a Promise Zone helps to reinforce the vibrancy that’s here in our community and the emphasis we place on quality education and providing educational opportunities for our youth,” he said.

Mroz said that not only will that help attract businesses seeking graduates ready for the workforce but also will attract workers who want to take advantage of that opportunity for their children.

He said talent is looking for quality places to live and then finding job opportunities, the opposite of previous generations’ habits. Having this designation improves the quality and attractiveness of living in Grand Rapids.

“When the nation is in an extremely tight labor market, you look for every advantage that you can get to separate yourself and attract the talent that your business needs to succeed,” Mroz said.

According to the Michigan Promise Zones Association, Promise Zone authorities are eligible for state funds beginning in their third year of operation, after two years of funding the program with donations.

Starting with the third year, continued fundraising will pair with a “tax capture” contribution from the state, which will be half of the funds resulting in State Education Tax growth within Grand Rapids.

If the resolution is passed, the next step would be to set up an 11-member Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority, nine members chosen by GRPS and two by the state, tasked with determining the scholarship plan.

Weatherall Neal said she likely will include the GRPS CFO and CFOs from other local schools, as well as someone from the city of Grand Rapids and someone from the business community.

Weatherall Neal said she would like the authority to break into smaller groups involving parents and other community members to work on the plan and ensure all students in Grand Rapids have the best opportunities.

“What I don’t want us to do is create winner and losers,” she said.

Weatherall Neal said many community leaders will be involved with the plan going forward, including the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place.

Weatherall Neal said the authority will first conduct a study to determine the number of students eligible and how much the program will cost.

Weatherall Neal said the authority will make many determinations, such as eligibility requirements, scholarship amounts, the colleges where funding can be used and how to raise the money needed for the program.

The rules state Promise Zone authorities might enforce GPA requirements and prorate scholarship amounts based on the number of years a student has attended a Grand Rapids school.

While there is no set timeline, Weatherall Neal said she would like to get the program running as soon as possible.

She said she will be in a meeting with other superintendents for a conference Sept. 19 and plans to learn from them about their Promise Zone strategies.

To access the scholarships, eligible students must apply for federal student aid by filling out the FAFSA form. The Promise Zone scholarship amount is calculated after total need-based grants — not loans — are determined.

Ten Michigan Promise Zones, including in the Muskegon County Intermediate School District and other “economically distressed communities,” were established in 2009 by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm before the newest five were added.

The program is named after the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship created in 2005 by anonymous donors, which pays in-state college tuition for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates.

The Michigan Promise Zones Association said KPS enrollment in fall 2006 grew by 10 percent, reversing decades of decline.

Eldorado, Illinois, was next in creating a Promise program, followed by Pittsburgh. There now are nearly 100 U.S. communities with a program.

“I’m just really excited about what this is going to mean for Grand Rapids,” Weatherall Neal said.

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