Monday, August 24, 2015

Community-funded scholarship program allowing impoverished rural students to attend college

Baldwin, Mich.—a village of 1,200 in one the state's poorest counties—has significantly increased its number of students who seek higher education through a community-funded program called the Baldwin Promise that provides students with a $5,000 scholarship to attend a state school and gets students thinking about college as early as kindergarten, Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. The program could serve as a model for other states—such as Tennessee and Oregon—that are launching similar programs.

Only 12 of the 32 members of the class of 2005 attended college and only two have received a bachelor's degree, Semuels writes. "Now, nearly everybody who graduated from the high school here in June is off to a four-year college, a community college or a technical school. The Baldwin Promise came with a change in the way the community talked about education, something that may have been more valuable than cash. From the day students start kindergarten, they’re coached to excel so they can go to college. In elementary school and middle school and high school, students, their parents and the community think about college and life after Baldwin schools. If nothing else, the Baldwin Promise effectively marketed college to a town that seemed fairly ambivalent about it before."

The Baldwin Promise is the brainchild of Rich Simonson, "a Baldwin native who left the area for his career in politics, during which time he ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in Michigan," Semuels writes. After retiring in Baldwin, Simonson came up with the idea to ask community members to donate $500 to help students attend college. "He convinced school employees to donate and summer residents, too. People who couldn’t give $500 up front could enroll in a payment plan." The group set a goal of $140,000 but ended up raising $160,000.

The effort came about the same time that Simonson helped Baldwin become designated as one of the state's 10 Promise Zone districts, which allowed districts a "unique tax-capture mechanism that enabled the districts to keep revenue that otherwise would have gone to the state and instead give it to students in the form of college scholarships," Semuels writes. Simonson, who passed away in 2012, left an endowment that supports the promise fund.

The success of the program is evident. In 2010, the first year of the program, 14 of 23 graduates attended college, up from eight of 23 the previous year, Semuels writes. Baldwin Senior High also added advanced placement classes and encourages student to dual enroll in area colleges. The school also encourages school and community pride through Decision Day (Semuels photo), in which students publicly declare their college of choice. (Read more)

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