Public Policy Forum Blog

A Promising Opportunity

Dr. Vicki Martin, the president of Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), recently sat down with Mike Gousha to discuss a new program providing free tuition to graduating high school students. The program has not received a lot of attention, but after listening to the discussion, I came away impressed by its potential to boost the fortunes of one of our region’s key educational institutions and the low-income population it primarily serves.

The MATC Promise pays for tuition and fees for students to enroll full-time for four consecutive semesters. It is a ‘last dollar’ program, meaning that it covers the cost of tuition and fees after federal and state financial aid is applied. The Promise was announced in September 2015 and is based off existing programs, most notably the Tennessee Promise, which enrolled its first class in the 2015-16 school year. 

The MATC Promise is targeted to low-income families and is open to current high school seniors attending a school in the MATC service area (mainly, Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties). Students need to achieve at least a 16 on the ACT exam, and have both a minimum GPA of 2.0 and a 90% attendance rate in the senior year of high school

Once accepted into the program, students must enroll full-time (12-15 credits per semester) and maintain a 2.0 GPA. The program also includes a service learning component as well as academic and career support services.

The program is primarily being funded through contributions from the business and philanthropic communities as well as alumni and other individuals. President Martin aims to raise $1 million to sustain the Promise over time. MATC has currently raised about $626,000 and is confident it will reach the fundraising target.

MATC officials hoped to have 1,000 applicants for the Promise in the first year. When the December 1 deadline arrived, 2,969 students had applied. Not only did the level of interest surpass expectations, but it far exceeded the usual number of high school applicants. At the same time last year, just 166 high school seniors had applied.

The Promise has the potential to reshape MATC in a number of ways. The average age of an MATC student is 30, meaning the college is serving a mostly adult population. An influx of new students fresh out of high school will lower the average and create a younger student body. Secondly, the vast majority of current students – 84% – attend MATC on a part-time basis. Multiple studies point to the increased retention and graduation rates that come with attending college full-time. The Promise requires students to attend full-time, which will hopefully lead to higher completion rates.

In addition to reshaping MATC, the Promise has significant potential to change Milwaukee. MATC has a large and diverse student body, with 58% of the 38,302 students being non-white. Moreover, 83% of students live in Milwaukee County, with another 9% coming from neighboring counties. An influx of new and diverse students earning technical and Associate’s Degrees will expand the pool of skilled labor available to area businesses.

Research suggests that someone with an Associate’s Degree will earn about $400,000 more than someone with a high school diploma over the course of his or her career. Providing low-income students with an opportunity to earn a technical or Associate’s Degree for free can help underserved populations access good-paying jobs. Moreover, the increased earning potential could boost our local economy.

The MATC Promise is an innovative program aimed at a population that typically faces many challenges to attending, let alone completing, college. Time will tell whether the program is successful, but the high level of interest suggests that MATC may be on to something.

Joe Yeado