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How Miami students can get a free college education

Miami Dade College announced Wednesday the American Dream Scholarship. The ‘free college’ offer could help boost college graduation rates – a goal of President Obama’s.

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The Miami Dade College (not pictured) is offering successful high school graduates a price tag that’s hard to refuse: free.

Photo Illustration: Bill Bachmann/DanitaDelimont.com/Newscom

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College tuition is going up and financial aid is on the chopping block in many states, but in the Miami area, one college is offering successful high school graduates a price tag that’s hard to refuse: free.

Miami Dade College – the largest institution of higher education in America, serving more than 170,000 students on eight campuses – announced its American Dream Scholarship on Wednesday. It will cover 60 credits at a value of about $6,500 – enough to earn a two-year degree or start in on one of the four-year programs offered by the community college.

This spring’s high school graduates in Miami-Dade County will be the first to benefit from the “free college” offer. To qualify for the new scholarship, students must have a 3.0 grade-point average and score well enough on entry tests to show they don’t need remedial math or reading courses. Normally, about a third of the college’s entering students pass at that level.

Funded primarily by private donations, the scholarship has the goal of giving families “the opportunity to send their children to college and not have to worry about having to bear such great financial debt,” says Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón. “We want our city to be a city of the future ... and the only way we are going to do that is by preparing young people for the jobs that are being created in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.”

It’s one of the many efforts under way nationwide to encourage more students to earn a postsecondary degree or work-related credential. President Obama’s goal is for the United States to be No. 1 in the world by 2020 in the proportion of young adults who have college degrees. To get there, the nation needs an additional 8 million graduates.

Florida would need to produce more than half a million additional college grads to do its share, according to state projections released this week by the US Department of Education and Vice President Joe Biden, who has made college accessibility a priority as chairman of the Middle Class Task Force.

Getting students in the door is the first step. Community colleges are often thought of as particularly affordable, but for the neediest students, that is often no longer the case. Eighty percent of community-college students with financial need still have some unmet needs after receiving aid, if broader expenses such as books and food are taken into account, according to the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif.

Although the Miami Dade scholarship covers only tuition, it is nevertheless “a great new story for a lot of students who were perhaps wondering about their futures,” says Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.

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As part of Mr. Obama’s goal, community colleges have been challenged to produce 5 million new graduates by 2020, he says, and in the states he has visited, educators and policymakers are working hard to improve their students’ success rates.

More than 40 percent of all degree-seeking students are enrolled in community colleges, and about 60 percent have to take at least one remedial course. Of those, less than a quarter complete a degree or certificate, the US Department of Education reports.

By requiring scholarship recipients to show that they don’t need remedial courses, Miami Dade College is hoping to motivate more students to start college on a sound footing and thus be more likely to complete a degree.

“Families are going to put a lot of pressure on students, not just saying, ‘You have to graduate [from high school],’ but, ‘You have to do better’ ” in order to earn the scholarship, Mr. Padrón says.

The new program will at the same time open the door to many students who may not think of themselves as academic-scholarship material, local educators say.

By using a weighted GPA, it gives students credit for trying more challenging courses that that they might get a C or B in, instead of an easy A, says Verena Cabrera, principal of Hialeah Senior High School.

Students at Hialeah who can meet the criteria are already thinking about college, she says, but because of financial concerns, “they might be thinking of starting later ... and postponing can mean the risk of not going, because they get caught up in life,” she says. But the scholarship will be an opportunity many will want to seize. It “will increase the numbers we get into college right away after high school,” she says.

Local public-private partnerships like the Miami Dade scholarship “can send a really positive signal to students in that community that college is possible,” says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

But in the broader picture, Ms. Asher adds, they don’t solve the “larger-scale problem of strains on state budgets just when families most need help.”

State budgets are the biggest factor influencing tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

In Florida, where legislators are considering taking a $320 million bite out of the higher-education budget, one possible trim would come from the state’s merit scholarship program.

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