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Eliminating barriers for Detroit students is a priority at Wayne State

As president of Detroit’s largest university, Kimberly Andrews Espy never misses a beat when it comes to connecting with students, faculty and the community.

Nearly a year into her tenure, Wayne State University’s principal said she sees this work as a key part of her commitment to reach more Detroit high school students and reduce barriers to enrollment.

“We know that going to college is an investment,” Espy said in a recent interview with Bridge. “It’s an investment in yourself, it’s an investment in your family, and it’s an investment in your sense of meaning and purpose for the future.”

The university strives to eliminate barriers for Detroit students, including meeting them at their schools, collaborating on community events, providing optional test scores on applications and offering scholarships that cover full tuition.

According to Ericka Matthews-Jackson, senior director of undergraduate admissions at Wayne State, 2,828 Detroit students are enrolled at Wayne State for fall 2023, including 529 undergraduate students. The total number of students arriving for the first year was 2,988.

Espy said the university’s admissions team has a regular presence at Detroit high schools, and teenagers are often invited to campus for events such as new and admitted student days. Wayne State also partners with the Detroit College Access Network for recruiting events and to help students complete college applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

The university offers a scholarship program specifically for Detroit residents called the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge, which offers free tuition to Detroit high school students or residents with a high school diploma. Wayne State is also one of 26 colleges in Michigan that honor the Detroit Promise, an initiative administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber that guarantees that every eligible student graduating from a Detroit high school is eligible for a free pathway to a two-year or four-year institution. During the 2023–24 school year, 443 students received the Heart of Detroit award and 125 students participated in the Detroit Promise program.

With the average annual income in Detroit averaging around $37,000, Espy understands that the biggest barrier high school students face when enrolling in college is financial.

“When you combine the Pell Grant (grant), the Michigan Achievement Scholarship and our own financial aid programs… you start to have a broad impact on whether students can afford college,” she said. “Last fall, 59% of our incoming class paid no tuition or fees.”

Wayne State’s goal is to remove barriers to a college-level education

When it comes to reaching students in Detroit, Wayne State has a two-person recruiting team that works with high schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District as well as charter schools in the city, Matthews-Jackson said.

“We typically visit high schools in the fall and then develop special relationships with several schools, including Cass Tech, Renaissance and Martin Luther King,” she said. “We have also designated days for our admissions counselors to meet with students interested in applying to Wayne State, help them complete their applications, and ensure they receive the support and resources they need.”

To reach students beyond the classroom, the admissions team partners with the Detroit College Access Network, a local organization dedicated to promoting higher education in the city. Both entities host college fairs and application nights, and Wayne State participates in the annual Metro Detroit Youth Day on Belle Isle.

A group of Detroit high school students gathered in May for the Detroit College Access Network’s Decision Day. The organization works with metro Detroit students to encourage them to pursue higher education. (Tyrell Boydston/DCAN)

Wayne State is also working to remove barriers in the application process. In 2020, the university allowed students to submit test scores from the ACT or SAT for consideration for admission. Additionally, Wayne State is one of 10 universities in the Michigan Guaranteed Admission Pact, which admits all Michigan high school students with a 3.0 GPA or higher.

Once students are admitted to college, Matthews-Jackson said, admissions counselors help teens with next steps, such as signing up for orientation classes and reviewing financial aid packages. Counselors also stay busy in the summer, meeting with children at Wayne State summer camps offered to middle and high school students.

“We want to have a closer relationship with the students and families we serve so that by the time their student applies and is ready to make an admissions decision, Wayne State is well known to them and they know they belong here,” Matthews-Jackson said .

This year, however, counselors faced two difficult challenges: DPSCD laid off many of its college transition counselors due to budget cuts, leaving some students with little or no in-school support to navigate the college application process.

Then, in December, there was a botched rollout of the enhanced FAFSA, which was compounded by subsequent processing errors. The rollout has left millions of American families in a waiting game, with serious implications for household budgets because the form allows students to qualify for a state scholarship program that can also lower college costs. Students typically enroll in colleges or universities by May 1, but this year several Michigan colleges, including Wayne State, have pushed back their deadlines due to FAFSA issues.

In some cases, students enter college or university without knowing what aid they will receive, which can force them to make difficult financial decisions. In other cases, students did not complete the application, suggesting they may not attend college at all.

“We weren’t able to start the awards list until mid to late April, which was very, very late,” Matthews-Jackson said.

Counselors visit schools like Cass and Renaissance every week to provide support to students. The university also runs a Detroit student ambassador program, in which Wayne State students who graduated from high school in Detroit talk to current high school students, Matthews-Jackson said. When it comes to FAFSA aid, the Office of Student Financial Aid has hosted several virtual and in-person FAFSA workshops. The next virtual workshop will be held on Monday, and the next in-person event will be held on Tuesday at the David Adamany Undergraduate Library.

Matthews-Jackson said Wayne State received 2,030 applications from students attending public, charter and private schools in Detroit. The university will accept applications for the 2024 fall semester until August 1.

“Many of the students and families we serve are Pell-eligible, first-generation college students, so financial aid and affordability are top of mind for them and something to consider as they try to figure out where they stand. they are going to apply, but also where they will ultimately enroll in college,” Matthews-Jackson said.

The key to access to university is providing students with additional support

According to 2022 census data, only 17% of Detroit residents have a college degree. That number is low compared to college rates in other cities and across the state, said Cyekeia Lee, director of DCAN. That’s why the organization is meeting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Sixty by 30” goal of having 60% of working-age adults earn a skills certificate or associate’s degree by 2030.

Lee said her staff of seven works with more than 50 district and charter schools across Detroit to get students interested in college and also provides professional development to Detroit-area counselors.

“We’re really working to ensure that the advisor knows all the college access issues, just as we want every student to know the language,” Lee said. “Counsellors are there to train and receive support.”

Staff assist students with completing college applications and the FAFSA. Lee said that to address the FAFSA fiasco, DCAN held FAFSA events at the Capital One Cafe downtown.

Wayne State is the top school in DCAN, and most students choose a school close to home, the principal said. In addition to campus visits, the organization partners with Detroit Promise to provide students admitted to the university with a special admissions day during the summer where they can speak with students and professors before their first semester.

“They offer (Wayne State) a good number of scholarships and financial aid packages at no cost to students in the city of Detroit, so it’s always a win-win for students,” Lee said. “Many students are excited about the opportunity to study at a four-year institution in the heart of the city that can compete with many neighboring colleges and institutions.”

Lee doesn’t yet have numbers for the Class of 2024, but noted that 1,852 Detroit high school students have committed to attending Wayne State between 2019 and 2023. In contrast, 816 Detroit students attended Michigan State University and 454 students attended the University of Michigan.

“We’re working on the city,” Lee said. “We are Detroit College’s access network. We leave no school behind.”

Bridge Michigan reporter Isabel Lohman contributed to this story.

Micah Walker is a reporter for Bridge Detroit. She can be contacted at [email protected].