Supports for post-secondary students: Detroit, MI
- Eliminating barriers to college enrollment and graduation: College access supports typically serve high school or early college students from underrepresented groups, such as first-generation students, students from families with low incomes, and English language learners. Programs offer a wide range of services, which often include some combination of academic courses, non-academic college preparedness skills, financial counseling, and more.
- Delivering the model: Many program services are anchored by a dedicated coach, who may be an on-site employee at a high school or college or off-site as an employee of a nonprofit program. Coaches typically spend the majority of their time in individual sessions with students or families, offering step-by-step guidance on the college admissions, enrollment, and persistence. Coaches may also participate in programming at local high schools, on college campuses, and among community-based organizations.
- Accumulating college credit during high school: Dual enrollment and early college programs are high-intensity practices within the college access space. These programs, which allow high school students to take college classes, have a range of benefits. In addition to accumulating college credit (often heavily subsidized or tuition-free), students gain familiarity with the academic and emotional rigor of college, which can ease transitions when they enroll full-time.
- Helping families prepare financially: College access supports often focus on the most common barrier: finances. This can be done through a range of supports, including direct scholarships for tuition; stipends for college costs (like transportation or books); financial planning assistance; referrals to external funding streams; and administrative assistance with key forms, like FAFSA.
- Incorporating supplementary services: Depending on the scope of the program, specialized academic or non-academic services may also be included, such as access to financing, tutoring, test prep, mentoring, and more. If a program does not include such services, coaches are often responsible for cultivating a robust referral network to ensure that student and family needs can be met.
Multiple rigorous evaluations of college access and readiness programs have demonstrated positive, statistically significant effects on college enrollment and completion.
A 2022 research synthesis found that well-designed college access programs are associated with increases in college enrollment and graduation.
A 2019 systematic review found that outreach programs that include active counseling or simplifying college application processes are effective in increasing disadvantaged students’ access to higher education.
- A 2012 meta analysis estimated that college access programs, on average, increase enrollment by 12 percent.
Results and accomplishments
A 2022 evaluation found that Detroit Promise Path participants were 7.6 percentage points more likely to enroll in at least one semester of college, and 3.5 percentage points more likely to enroll for at least seven semesters.
Detroit Promise Path participants accumulated four additional credits over three years compared to students in a control group, a 27% increase.
program participants say the Detroit Promise Path is valuable or highly valuable to them.
- More consistent enrollment, greater credit accumulation: MDRC’s 2021 evaluation of the Detroit Promise Path found that participants were 8.1 percent more likely to enroll in courses for five semesters over three years. On average, Detroit Promise Path students earned four more credits than students in a control group, a 27% increase.
- Serving all enrolled students: By 2018, the program had rapidly scaled to serve all 1,268 Detroit Promise scholarship recipients at four of the five participating colleges.
- Growing financial capacity: Through a dedicated fundraising effort spearheaded by the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation (MEEF), Detroit Promise has raised over $17 million in philanthropic funding since 2013. $4.3 million of this has gone to the Promise Path.
- Bipartisan champions across the state: Detroit Promise Path has been championed by state and local executives across party lines, including two governors, Detroit’s mayor, Detroit City Council Members, and other civic leaders.
- Exposing policy priorities: The program has shed light on major barriers to student persistence and graduation, helping to shift Michigan's higher education landscape. This includes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recently-launched $30 million Michigan Reconnect scholarship program for adults 25 and older to earn associate degrees or skills certificates, as well as the state's commitment to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 49% today to 60% by 2030.
In the Detroit region, just 28 percent of the population over 25 had a bachelor’s degree in 2013. A key barrier to educational attainment in the region was the low graduation rates at community colleges. Despite financial support from the Detroit Promise scholarship program, many students struggled to graduate due to academic and personal barriers.
In 2016, Detroit Regional Chamber and MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, started the Detroit Promise Path (DPP). In addition to financial support, DPP uses evidence-based academic and personal support services to boost college persistence. Central to this approach is intensive, personalized coaching from advisors, who help students navigate personal and academic concerns during both the academic year and the summer.
Keys to DPP’s success included a focus on employing evidence-based strategies to improve student outcomes; building buy-in among both campus and local and state political leaders; an emphasis on using data to inform decisions on its strategies; and a commitment to building strong relationships between students and coaches.
Obstacles DPP faced included students’ limited access to personal or public transportation options, which led to long commutes; the many students who required significant remedial instruction after enrollment; and the region’s fragmented community college governance structure, which led to uneven implementation of the model.
What was the challenge?
- An urgent need for skilled workers: Detroit, in deep financial crisis, needed a skilled workforce to attract new investment. In 2013, just 28% of the region's population over 25 had a bachelor’s degree, a figure below the national average and far behind comparably-sized cities.
- Low graduation rates in local community colleges: Across the region, 73% of students from Detroit who enrolled in postsecondary education did not earn a degree within six years.
- Financial supports necessary but insufficient: Even with the last-dollar scholarship provided by the Detroit Promise, many community college students from Detroit struggled to accumulate credits and graduate. Navigating course selection, registration, and financial aid processes posed particular challenges.
- Help needed outside of the classroom: Low-income students also faced acute non-academic challenges to graduating from community college, including housing instability, food insecurity, and other costs not addressed by scholarship funding.
- Early statewide scholarship programs fall short: Since 1999, Michigan had funded various forms of college scholarships, with little impact on graduation rates. Facing a budget crisis in 2009, the Michigan State Senate eliminated the first iteration of the Michigan Promise program, which had provided more than 96,000 students with $4,000 each in tuition support.
What was the solution?
- Combining financial, personal, and academic supports: By combining financial support (via a last-dollar scholarship) and a series of empirically-backed personal and academic supports, Detroit Promise Path provides students with a stronger infrastructure to navigate the challenges of college persistence.
- Intensive, personalized coaching: Students are assigned coaches to help them navigate the challenges they confront in enrolling in and persisting through community college. With relatively small caseloads (1:100), coaches provide intensive support starting the summer before enrollment, including two required meetings per month, frequent communication, and an incentive ($50 per month conditional on meeting with coaches).
- Making the most of summer: In addition to ongoing coaching throughout the year, coaches help students to build out summer plans, often encouraging students to enroll in summer courses.
- Projected revenues from the Detroit Promise Zone: After the State Senate eliminated the Michigan Promise scholarship program in 2009, then-Gov. Granholm designated Detroit as one of 10 new Promise Zones. This made the Detroit Promise scholarship, and, eventually, the Promise Path, eligible for state tax increment financing. While the Promise Zone has taken several years to generate revenue, as the city rebounds, the Detroit Promise Path is now projected to $1-2 million per year via the Promise Zone Authority over the next several years.
- Dedicated fundraising team: With no access to public funding for an extended period, Detroit Promise Path has mobilized the philanthropic community. The program is primarily funded through a robust development arm (administered by the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation). Since the Detroit Promise scholarship launched in 2013, MEEF has raised $17 million in private philanthropic donations.
What factors drove success?
- State and local leader buy-in: Cultivating vocal program champions at the highest levels of state (such as former Gov. Rick Snyder and current Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) and local (Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) government led to eventual public investment while also boosting philanthropic contributions.
- Leveraging proven solutions: After experimenting with ad hoc solutions, such as a volunteer mentorship program, the Detroit Regional Chamber actively sought empirically-backed strategies and expertise, leading to engagement with MDRC and laying the foundation for a sustainable program.
- Early student recruitment: Developing a partnership with Detroit high schools allows coaches to meet with and recruit students before college enrollment, helping them to build trust and familiarity while raising the likelihood that students would continue to engage once on campus.
- Data-informed decision making: Investing in a data management system allows coaches to track student engagement and to inform student-focused strategies, such as identifying the times a student is most likely to reply to a coach’s outreach (such as in between classes and during lunch).
- Committed campus leaders: Strong buy-in from campus leaders has tangible benefits for coaches, including office space to meet with students, easier access to student data, and helping students navigate campus services and resources.
- Commitment to coaching: The program dedicates the majority of its budget to hiring and training coaches, which allows each coach to build strong individual relationships with students and keep caseloads relatively small (1:100).
What were the major obstacles?
- A third-party administrator: With the lack of public funding and a fragmented landscape of community college governance, the Detroit Promise Path is administered by a separate entity, the Detroit Regional Chamber. The Chamber, in turn, is reliant on individual campuses to house and support the program, which leads to significant variance in program delivery.
- Inability to mandate full-time enrollment: While many leading college student support service programs require full-time enrollment (such as CUNY ASAP), because the Detroit Promise Path is administered by a third party, students are not required to enroll in full-time coursework. Many Promise Path students are only able to enroll part-time as they balance jobs, childcare, and other responsibilities, which has contributed to slower credit accumulation and low three-year graduation rates.
- Remedial education obstacles: Many program participants require remedial or developmental course work after enrolling in community college, which adds significant academic, financial, and time burdens that do not directly contribute to credit accumulation.
- Long commutes, underserved communities: Public transportation in the Detroit region does not serve many routes needed by students, resulting in extremely long commutes that were frequently cited as a reason for leaving school. More than half of program participants rely on that system for their daily commutes.
- Mixed reception on campus: At one site, college leadership did not embrace the program, forcing coaches to hold meetings with students off campus or remotely. This dynamic also led to more barriers for coaches to solve financial aid issues and obtain student data from the college, both of which hindered the coaches’ ability to effectively perform their duties.
A group of anonymous donors come together to fund community and four-year college tuition for Kalamazoo students, promising to maintain funding “in perpetuity” for future generations. The program has paid out over $117 million in scholarships for 7,000 students over the past 15 years.
The Michigan State Senate eliminates the Michigan Promise scholarship in the wake of a budget crisis. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who opposed the cut, responds by designating 10 high-need areas across the state to receive recaptured property tax revenue via the state’s K-12 education fund, which must be used to help students attend college.
Seeking to address the state’s higher education crisis, Gov. Snyder engages with the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation (MEEF). MEEF then engages with the Detroit Regional Chamber to begin fundraising, program design, and other key implementation steps for the Detroit Promise scholarship fund.
The Detroit Regional Chamber, in partnership with the State of Michigan and MEEF, launches a new College Promise scholarship (today, there more than 300 across the country). The program covers all college tuition and fees for any student in Detroit to attend community college in the area.
As a signal to employers that the City is investing in workforce development, Mayor Duggan launches the Detroit Promise Zone Authority. The State of Michigan approves its Development Plan, codifying into law a permanent allocation of tax revenue to fund two-year scholarships administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
After reviewing MDRC’s research work across the country with other financial aid and student support programs, like CUNY ASAP and the ASAP Demonstration in Ohio, the Detroit Regional Chamber contracts with the organization to help adapt and implement the model in Detroit as scholarships alone show limited impact on student outcomes. Roughly 400 Detroit Promise scholarship students are randomly assigned to the Detroit Promise Path program, while the remaining 225 scholarship students were assigned to the control group.
After MDRC’s interim report shows strong positive effects on students’ persistence, enrollment, and credit accumulation, the program expands to include all Detroit Promise scholarship recipients. The data from the report helps generate an infusion of more than $4.5 million in additional philanthropic giving.
After soliciting input from Detroit Promise Path leaders, the state announces a new program targeting older (25+) students. Called Michigan Reconnect, the program provides free tuition to in-district community college students.
MDRC releases an evaluation of Detroit Promise Path’s first four years. The findings show that while the program significantly boosted persistence, it did not have an effect on graduation rates. The report concludes, “The final word on this Detroit Promise Path randomized controlled trial is that the program can help students stay in school, and more can and should be done to raise graduation rates."
How did leaders confront the problem?
- A new mayor prioritizes workforce development: Mayor Mike Duggan takes office in 2014 eager to boost Detroit’s supply of workforce talent through improvements to postsecondary education.
- Recognizing the limits of scholarships alone: For three years, the Detroit Regional Chamber and Michigan Education Excellence Foundation offer the Detroit Promise scholarship, which has a limited impact on student outcomes such as credit accumulation and persistence through graduation.
- Seeking new evidence-based practices: After experimenting with a volunteer mentorship program in 2014, Detroit Regional Chamber staff seek evidence-based practices to inform a more effective program design and implementation.
- Partnership to implement evidence-based supports: The Chamber and MEEF engage with MDRC, which had demonstrated expertise in evaluating supportive community college programs such as CUNY ASAP.
How was the strategy designed?
- Identifying target outcomes: Working closely with MDRC, Detroit Promise Path administrators identify a promising suite of strategies to address their target outcomes: persistence, credit accumulation, and graduation.
- Adapting a proven model to local context: Program staff adapt parts of the CUNY ASAP model to better fit Detroit student needs and college capacity, including eliminating the requirement of full-time enrollment, the use of cohorts, and cross-campus coordination.
- Focus on student coaching: Instead, the program prioritizes offering every Detroit Promise scholarship student an on-site coach, who provides each student personalized, wide-ranging support and mentorship.
- Implementation led by individual campuses: Coaches were initially hired and employed by the Detroit Regional Chamber. As the program was implemented on each campus independently, the largest site, Henry Ford College, brought all three coaches there onto its staff, while the other three remain employed by the Detroit Regional Chamber.
- Monthly incentives to meet with coaches: The adapted model also provides a conditional monthly incentive for $50 (the cost of a monthly bus pass) and additional incentives to participate in summer jobs programs.
How was the approach funded?
- Largely philanthropically funded to date: The program is primarily funded through private donations from corporations and foundations, including the Ballmer Group, the Ford Motor Company Fund, and the Kellogg Foundation. The Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, which serves as DPP’s primary fundraiser, has raised $17 million for Promise and the Promise Path, with $4.3 million in funding for the Promise Path specifically.
- Promise Zone tax recapture begins to generate revenue: The Detroit Promise Zone Authority also projects that it will provide the program with tax recapture funding; the program anticipates receiving $1-2 million per year over the next several years.
- Coaches' salaries make up most of program cost: Coach salaries make up more than half the total cost of the program, while financial incentives ($50 incentive for students) make up roughly a quarter. Administrative and other costs (such as a program manager and equipment) make up the remaining quarter.
- Seeking funding for additional student needs: With projections for a possible increase in public funding (through both the Detroit Promise Zone Authority, and, potentially, federal stimulus funds), program administrators are planning for an emergency fund dedicated to urgent student needs that currently pose frequent barriers, including for transportation, food, housing, and books.
How was the plan implemented?
- Hiring coaches: The program is administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, which prioritized rapid hiring and training of 3 full time and 2 part time coaches to serve an initial 400 students already receiving the Detroit Promise scholarship.
- Training conducted by MDRC: MDRC provided 815 hours of technical assistance not associated with the research study at a cost of roughly $62,000 ($21 per student per year), including training staff members how to use the data management system and teaching student engagement strategies backed by behavioral science research.
- Early outreach to students: As soon as they were trained, coaches were required to reach out to students within their assigned cohorts via email, text, or phone call and try to secure meetings as quickly as possible. More than 90 percent of students responded to initial outreach.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Data management system tracks student performance: To reduce burdens on coaches, the program invested in a data management system that tracks student performance and engagement and automates appointment scheduling and financial incentives.
- Communication and outreach informed by data: The data management system is also used to inform communications strategies, especially by identifying the times a student is most likely to reply to a coach’s outreach (such as in between classes and during lunch).
- Early evaluation leads to expansion: Interim results from MDRC, including strong student participation rates and positive effects on persistence and credit accumulation, led the Detroit Chamber and MEEF to expand the program to all 1,268 Detroit Promise scholarship recipients.
- Evaluation leads to ambitious reform agenda: With MDRC’s four-year findings indicating ongoing barriers to graduation beyond the capacity of Detroit Promise Path to address alone, the Detroit Regional Chamber has begun convening workforce development stakeholders across Southeast Michigan to confront some of the most significant barriers to student graduation, such as overhauling the remedial education system and improving public transportation.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Greg Handel, Wytrice Harris, and Mark Yancy of the Detroit Regional Chamber, Peter Remington of the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation, Russ Kavalhuna of Henry Ford Community College, and Alyssa Ratledge of MDRC.