MUSKEGON — High school graduates in Muskegon County will now have access to scholarship funds that will pay for two years of community college.
The Muskegon Area Promise program recently secured the initial private funding it needed to begin its first two years of operation. While the Promise will clearly benefit students, the program should also provide an array of benefits for a community in need of a more educated workforce and an increased revenue base, according to business and municipal leaders.
Proponents of the Promise say the program will not only help to solve a severe lack of technical talent throughout Muskegon County, but also it will attract new families to the region, increasing the local government’s tax base and injecting cash into area businesses.
“Today, it’s a skill-based job market and unfortunately we don’t have enough skills to fill those jobs,” said Steve Parker, who serves as the chair of the Muskegon Promise Zone. “Obviously, if we can fill those, it’s going to be a benefit for Muskegon from an economic development perspective, and certainly it’s going to enable kids to have more flexibility and make decisions that are in the best interest of their lives.”
When fully funded, the Promise will cover up to 100 percent of tuition and fees for an associate degree or equivalent technical program at either Muskegon Community College or Baker College of Muskegon. Students can also use the Promise to take 62 credits of general education to transfer to a four-year university. Students will be required to have earned a 3.5 grade point average or higher and have graduated from one of 12 school districts in Muskegon County to be eligible for the Promise. Following graduation, students will have up to four years to take advantage of the program.
“When this really gets rolling, you’re talking 200 to 300 scholarships a year (and) that’s a lot of power and potential for a number of kids in our area,” said John Severson, superintendent of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District. “We think it’s going to be a huge game-changer.”
A SUSTAINABLE MODEL
Last month, the Muskegon Area Promise Zone Authority — the body that administers the Promise program — received final approval from the Michigan Department of Treasury for a two-phase funding approach to make the program self-sustainable by 2022.
The Promise Zone Authority announced shortly after this report initially went to press that it more than surpassed its first phase goal of $108,000 by raising $400,000 in private donations for the program.
Muskegon-based ADAC Automotive, Norton Shores-based Nichols Paper & Supply Co., Spring Lake-based Hines Corporation and New York-based Alcoa Foundation contributed $100,000 each to the Promise program.
Those initial funds will allow the organization to begin offering Promise scholarships for Class of 2015 graduates from Holton, Muskegon and Muskegon Heights high schools.
Under the legislation that created the Michigan Promise Zones in 2009, Promise programs are required to sustain themselves with private dollars for two years before the program can begin to capture 50 percent of revenue increases to the state education tax, which is derived from property taxes in each promise zone, Parker said.
Beginning in 2017 with the education tax capture, the Promise program plans to expand the scholarship to students in the remaining nine school districts in Muskegon County. The Promise Zone Authority aims to raise an additional $500,000 in private money that — in conjunction with the education tax capture and initial round of private funding — would make the Promise program fully sustainable by 2022, Parker said.
“At about year seven, the capture of tax income exceeds the cost of the program so we will no longer need private contributions,” he said.
Similar Promise zones have been established in the Baldwin, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Hazel Park, Lansing, Pontiac and Saginaw school districts.
Champions of the Muskegon Promise primarily hope the new program will help address an ever-shrinking pool of available skilled workers in the area.
Since the program offers scholarships for students pursuing technical degrees and certifications as well as those working toward bachelor’s degrees, employers will ideally have access to an increased pool of both skilled and white-collar workers, said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. In addition, employers also suspect that the Promise will draw in people from other regions who want their children to be able to capitalize on the program.
“Employers are incredibly excited about it, not only because they think that we’ll have a homegrown workforce, but we’re also going to attract people to our community,” Larsen said.
Specifically for manufacturers, the program will help eliminate the need for employers to pay for recent graduates’ associate degrees and technical training programs on the front end before they can put them to work, said Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College.
“(The Promise) is going to get them the skills to a point where companies won’t need to send them back to us, because they’ll get the training from the get-go,” Nesbary said.
CASE STUDY IN KALAMAZOO
Proponents of the Muskegon Promise point to the success of a similar program in Kalamazoo as evidence of the potential impact the program could have on the local community.
Since its inception in 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise has yielded a more than 11 percent return on investment, according to an impact study on the program conducted this year by the W.E Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo that examined the lifetime earnings associated with two- and four-year degrees.
The Kalamazoo Promise is funded by an anonymous group of donors instead of through the state education tax. It pays up to 100 percent of tuition and fees for eligible students at any public community college or university in the state. As of 2014, 1,400 high school graduates from the Kalamazoo Public School (KPS) system used the scholarships, which were valued at $61 million, according to the Upjohn Institute.
Janis Brown, who serves as the executive director emeritus of the Kalamazoo Promise and was the former superintendent of KPS from 2000 to 2007, said the program has proven to be an important talent-attraction tool for businesses in Kalamazoo.
“I’ve heard everything (from business owners) from, ‘The people that are working for me now came here because of the Promise,’ to ‘People have come here because they want to be in an education community and there was no other community like the Kalamazoo Promise community in terms of emphasizing education,’” Brown said.
Though both programs differ in their funding models, Brown believes that the education tax capture component to the Muskegon Area Promise model will serve the program well over the long term.
“I think part of the huge advantages of the Muskegon Promise is that they have dollars coming back to them from the state,” Brown said. “That’s going to be an immense motivator to get out there and get that money to sustain them … and I think that’s absolutely fabulous.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a confirmation of funding for the Muskegon Area Promise program.