In 2013, a group of organizations from around metro Detroit came up with a goal. They wanted to increase the number of Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completed by Detroit students from 54 percent to 70 percent. The idea? If more students applied for federal aid for college, more would attend. By the end of the campaign, the goal was exceeded – with 73 percent of students having completed the FAFSA. Through this initial campaign, the Detroit College Access Network (DCAN), which helps any Detroit student access any type of education beyond high school and overcome potential barriers, was born.
“We are a network of college access stateholders that work together to bridge the gap between college readiness and degree completion for students in Detroit,” says Ashley Johnson, director of DCAN. “We consider college anything that is post-secondary education. That includes everything from trade apprenticeships and community college all the way up to a four-year degree.”
Through DCAN, the FAFSA completion campaign continues. There are city-wide initiatives to train someone from every high school to provide support to the students who are applying for federal aid. They use these campaigns as a tipping point to create a college-going culture within the school buildings, Johnson says.
“We increase the capacity of the people who already have the relationships with the kids,” she says. “We help them learn how to work with the students to create post-high school plans.”
Since the year that DCAN officially began working in the schools, over 45 high schools in Detroit and several community-based organizations have opted to participate.
“At DCAN, we are making sure our kids are going into institutions that are going to support them through graduation, not have more barriers in place that would discourage the kids from pursuing post-secondary education,” Johnson says.
In Detroit, the majority of adults over the age of 25 (54.4 percent) have no post-secondary education beyond a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Part of DCAN’s initiative is to identify real barriers that prohibit the students from excelling beyond high school graduation. One of the barriers the students face is academic readiness, she says, but the Detroit schools are working on curriculum and programs to improve that aspect.
According to Johnson, most of the students involved are the first in their family to consider attending college after high school.
“Many are the first in their family to go to college, therefore they don’t have people in their family that they can ask for help or advice. The schools are busy working on academic readiness, testing and curriculum that they might not be set up to help students with that aspect of college planning. The student’s lack of college knowledge and understanding of how to navigate the process can be a huge barrier,” Johnson says.
DCAN helps students overcome this barrier by using ambassadors to get into the schools and talk to the students about the importance of college. Johnson says she wants Detroiters who can share their personal stories, including how they transitioned to where they are today and the importance of a post-secondary education. In addition, there are financial aid nights and help for students in completing college applications.
The Detroit Promise ensures that any Detroit student who graduates from a high school within the city will have an option to obtain an associate degree, technical certificate or bachelor’s degree (from a participating community college or university) tuition free. With this program in place, a post-secondary education is more accessible to Detroit students.
“We know that in this economy, you are going to need some type of post-secondary education after high school to help you get to a higher level of income,” Johnson says.
DCAN is working with schools to begin the outreach programs as early as possible, even as soon as the transition between eighth and ninth grade. That formative time is when the decision of where to send a child to high school and what classes they take can impact their long-term goals.
For more information about how to volunteer with DCAN, or the services DCAN provides, visit detroitcan.org.
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