Eye on Education

Good Grades in Akron Could Lead to Free College Tuition

Graduate from high school, get accepted to a local college and we’ll help you pay for it:

Mario Tama / Getty Images

It’s a deal that a growing number of communities, from Oberlin to Pittsburgh, have been making with students.

Now add Akron to that list.

The University of Akron and the Akron school district plan to offer full tuition scholarships to every Akron high school graduate who has at least a B average, or meets other admission requirements. The four-year scholarships are worth about $40,000 each.

Today, about half of Akron high school graduates head to some sort of post-secondary education, Akron Superintendent David James says the district wants to increase that figure:

“Initially we’re talking about a little over 100 students and then having the program grow as the word gets out. And we think more families will get interested in making sure that their students are prepared for college and then we’d use this to jump-start a larger effort in our community.”

The theory is that the promise of a scholarship will encourage students to keep their grades up in order to qualify, and make it that much easier for them to enroll.

James cited the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program as a model for Akron’s plan.

The Kalamazoo program offers all Kalamazoo graduates a full-tuition scholarship to attend any Michigan public college or university. Since the program started, the school district’s enrollment rose 16 percent after years of decline, and more students took college prep or AP classes, one researcher found.

But it differs from Akron’s plan in two key ways:

  • The Kalamazoo Promise serves as a “first-dollar” scholarship. That means students receive a scholarship from the program, and then turn to federal financial aid and other sources to close any funding gap.
  • Akron’s program would be a “last-dollar” scholarship, which means that it would come in at the end of the financial aid process to close the gap between tuition and other available financial aid. That kind of set-up can make things more complicated for students, but can let the local scholarship programs make the most of its resources.
  • And, in Michigan, basically any graduate can receive the scholarship. In Akron, students would have to meet  GPA and ACT score requirements (A 3.0 high school GPA and score a 27 on the ACT;  Rank in the top 10 percent of their high school class and score a 26 on the ACT; or have a 3.5 high school GPA and score a 24 on the ACT.)
  • These kinds of requirements can mean that fewer students are eligible for scholarships, but can also mean that the money flows to students who are more likely to succeed.

To finance the deal, the school district plans to trade an unused high school building to the university in return for the value of the scholarships. But for that to happen, state lawmakers need to change the rules about how school districts dispose of unneeded school buildings.

Akron Superintendent David James and University of Akron President Luis Proenza testified today in support of a bill that would do just that: HB 381. The bill, introduced by state Rep. Lynn Slaby (R-Copley), would give public colleges and universities first dibs on unused school buildings.

And it would allow them to purchase the buildings either for cash or in-kind services — like tuition, in this case. Under current state law, proceeds from selling a school building must go into the district’s building fund. Money in that account can only be used for construction-related purposes–not for teacher salaries, classroom equipment or college tuition.

Proenza said that he wasn’t aware of any communities besides Akron currently interested in taking advantage of the bill’s provisions.

(The current state law also gives charter schools first dibs on unused school buildings — Not that the Akron school district expects many charter schools to want the 230,000-square foot high school building it would use in this transaction.)

The building –  Central-Hower High School — is currently appraised at $13 million. But the university plans to set aside additional public funding and raise private dollars to fund the Akron scholarships in perpetuity, Proenza said.

Proenza says the Akron scholarship plan will move foward whether or not the law passes:

“We certainly intend to continue to pursue this. This has been something we’ve been discussing for quite some time.”


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