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Does free college equal more degrees? Detroit to test popular theory

The mayor of Detroit announced a 'Promise' program, similar to others in Michigan, to guarantee two years of community college to local high school graduates. 

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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at a press conference at Detroit Regional Chamber, Feb. 2. Mayor Duggan announced Tuesday that the city has secured permanent funding for all Detroit Public Schools graduates to attend local colleges free of charge.

Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/AP

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Going to college just got dramatically more do-able for Detroit students, thanks to a "Detroit Promise" plan that will offer free community college to local high school graduates.

The city has secured permanent funding to cover two years at any of six local colleges for graduates of the Detroit Public Schools, Mayor Mike Duggan announced Tuesday. The state has already committed to instituting similar programs in 10 low-income cities in Michigan, all modeled after the largely successful "Kalamazoo Promise" begun in that city in 2005.

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Free community college is an increasingly popular idea, including pitches from Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, and President Obama. The Kentucky House of Representatives approved a bill last week which would pay for six semesters at the state's community and technical college system, after students apply for financial aid. 

Advocates say that a college degree is not a luxury, but a necessity, to make a living wage in the 21st century economy, and that rapidly-increasing tuitions lock many deserving students out of that opportunity. 

But education researchers will be watching carefully to see whether free tuition actually makes a dramatic change. While school costs do bar many students, they say, numerous factors prevent first-year students from obtaining their degree, such as academic support and family obligations. 

Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates nation-wide enroll in college within eight years of getting their high school diploma, Northwestern University researcher Chenny Ng wrote in a November op-ed, but community colleges, on average, have graduation rates around just 40 percent. Dr. Ng, who is skeptical that free college can motivate all students, recommends strengthening other programs, like college career services, to help students get through their program and land stable jobs. 

After 10 years of the "Kalamazoo Promise," in which anonymous donors paid for state university tuition for local high school grads, researchers found that about 48 percent of the program's students earned a postsecondary credential, including college degrees, within six years. For those who did not use the plan, or did not qualify, that average was 36 percent. 

Teachers say the program is felt in high schools, too, where students who once couldn't imagine themselves enrolling in college started to take themselves and their studies more seriously. 

"I wouldn’t have reached for those extra things if I had not known I was going to college afterwards," one young Promise participant who decided to take extra classes and a filmmaking program told the Monitor in June. 

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In Detroit, the program will be funded by state education taxes, and cover costs remaining after students apply for scholarships and aid. 

The beleaguered Detroit school district, one of the poorest-performing city districts in the nation in recent years, has earned national attention this winter after teachers staged a series of "sick outs" to call attention to dangerous conditions in their buildings, which constituted health and safety violations. 

On Tuesday, the Michigan Senate approved a $700 million plan to dig the district, which has been state-managed since 2009, out of debt. Mayor Duggan has supported the proposal, which would return schools to local control. 

Amid those problems, however, the district has turned around its drop-out rate from 58.2 percent, in 2008, to 77.4 percent last year. 

The city's median household income is $26,095, according to census data. Some 78 percent of those over age 25 have a high school diploma, while only 13.1 percent hold a bachelor's degree.  

This report includes material from the Associated Press.