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It's not quite the Kalamazoo Promise, but Grand Rapids just got a major new scholarship program


As many as 200 kids per year from the west side of Grand Rapids will get a chance at a free college education, thanks to a new scholarship program announced today. 

The scholarships come out of a program that started a few years ago at Harrison Park Elementary in Grand Rapids. The Challenge Scholars program, a project of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, started with a single class of fourth-grade students, with the goal of doing whatever it would take to prepare those kids for college. 

"From about 2008 to 2011, we just did a deep dive into 'what are we going to do?'" says Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. "We started with the fourth grade, but really what we're trying to do is influence that whole school."

So the school got what Sieger calls a "college pathways coordinator," a person who basically prepares kids and their families for what it will take to be ready for college. The school also got added support in math and literacy. 

But 97 percent of kids at Harrison Park Elementary are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which means many of them are living in poverty. Just getting them prepared for college wasn't going to be enough. 

That's where the scholarships come in. The Grand Rapids Community Foundation has raised $26 million of what it hopes will be a $32 million endowment to make sure all kids who go through the Challenge Scholars program will be able to pay for college. 

Sieger estimates the endowment will cover tuition for up to 200 students per year, starting in 2020, at a cost of just over $2 million per year. 

The obvious comparison for the program is the Kalamazoo Promise, which has provided college scholarships to about 400 kids per year since 2006, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute

One big difference: the Kalamazoo Promise covers every kid who graduates from Kalamazoo Public Schools. The Challenge Scholars will only cover kids from one high school, and unlike the Kalamazoo Promise, it will be a "last dollar" scholarship, meaning it will cover costs after other scholarships or grants are taken into account.

Sieger says she'd love to see Challenge Scholars expand. 

"The fact of the matter is that there isn't enough money at this point to be able to expand the program," she says. 

Grand Rapids Public Schools is larger than Kalamazoo Public Schools, so it would be more expensive to cover all students in Grand Rapids. But Challenge Scholars also has added costs for the supports starting elementary school.

Expanding it wouldn't be cheap. 

"If we were to really do this for the entire district, it would be a price tag that would just really be huge," Sieger says. "Not that I'm not willing to try to raise that." 

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.