I suppose there is one reason for Detroiters to get excited about Mayor Mike Duggan’s unveiling of Detroit Promise – a program, funded by several foundations and the Detroit Regional Chamber whose intent is to give tuition-free two-year college scholarships to every student who graduates from a school in the city.
This inducement, after all, is another positive example of business’ role in education. And it makes sense. Finding qualified workers is the biggest single problem for many Detroit-based employers. Businesses simply can’t afford to silently observe schools churn out students with skills best suited for Burger King.
Theoretically, it will work something like this: Beginning with the 2016 graduating class, Detroit Promise scholarships will cover tuition and fees for up to three years, or the time required to earn an associate degree. Students must maintain a full-load per semester. That’s simple enough.
However, this is not the first noble effort by the business class to move the academic needle in Detroit by offering scholarships. And if history is a reference, this too will fall short of its objectives for reasons that are beyond the best intentions and influence of employers.
Academic partnerships that reward student performance with college tuitions or guaranteed positions in the labor force have a well-charted history in the city. In the late 1980s, Merrill Lynch & Co. made a 16-year, $800,000 investment in 25 first-graders at Detroit’s now defunct George Pomeroy Goodale Elementary School. Under the Scholarship Builder Class of 2000, students who finished high school would have their college tuition paid or receive a $1,000 stipend if they joined the military or started work right after graduation.
The Merrill Lynch program started with first-graders, whose academic progress was to be closely monitored through the 12th grade. Since the school no longer exists – and in the ensuing years the dropout rate has been exorbitantly high, it’s difficult to track how many, if any, of the students cashed in.
Shortly thereafter, the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce –now the Detroit Regional Chamber – spearheaded the Detroit Compact. This similar, but more comprehensive program offered a tuition-free path to, not two, but a four-year college degree for those who met the program’s “reasonable” academic standards: a GPA of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale; a 95 percent attendance rate; a score of 21 or higher on the ACT, and good behavior.
The Detroit Regional Chamber administered the program for more than 17 years. It was abandoned because not enough DPS students met the minimum program requirements for college entry.
Now the Chamber is backing a scaled-down, “dumbed-down” scholarship program in which a “social promotion” graduation certificate is the only requirement. Perhaps there is a new realization that if high-end academic inducements were unrealistic during the turbulent decades of the 1980s and 1990s, they have no chance when school problems system-wide have worsened and prospects of student academic success are bleak.
Plagued by ineptitude, scandals and corruption at the top and dissent from within, the education bureaucracy lacks the discipline, integrity and willingness to divorce itself from the status quo. So it remains to be seen whether the lowering of standards will produce an abundance of employees that employers actually want to hire.
Nevertheless, Detroit Promise sponsors say they are in for the long haul. But there’s more reason than not to believe that like those before it, this ambitious initiative will also expire and be recorded as another fanciful illusion.
Because until and unless the city is re-cultured– and by extension the schools restructured — there won’t be a lot of Detroit job takers in perpetuity.