In the last several weeks, the news cycle has been filled with stories of young men - many African-American - signing letters of intent to play sports at various American colleges and universities.
But another "signing day" last June at Milwaukee Public Schools is still reverberating throughout the community and gaining attention across the country. Last year, at Rufus King High School, 10 young men wearing college attire signed letters of intent to go to Morehouse College on practically full scholarship. This year, another 15 young men have been accepted to matriculate in the fall.
These acceptances and scholarships are the result of a now two-year-old partnership between MPS and Morehouse College, an all-male, historically black college in Atlanta. Philanthropic support from various corporate and community partners raised $800,000 in scholarships.
"The young men that are coming out of this partnership with Milwaukee are not going to be bouncing a basketball and throwing a football," says Morehouse College president John Wilson, Jr. "They’re going to be scholars – and invest deeply in the life of the mind."
Cost of college a challenge
As MPS' graduation rate has increased in recent years – 17 percent, in fact, since the 1999-2000 school year - so has the average cost of one year at college. It now costs more than $22,000 for in-state schools and $43,000 for private schools, according to the College Board. And the latest data shows Milwaukee’s poverty rate at above 29 percent. And that's creating a barrier to higher education, says MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton.
"I found that a number of our kids were getting accepted into universities and actually tearing up their acceptance letter because they could not find a way," he says.
Reaching young black men
Thornton says the partnership is a "pioneering effort" to uniquely address the challenges in educating young African American men in today's educational system.
Morehouse's Wilson says those "powerful" challenges include high drop out rates, high incarceration rates and high rates of delinquency in school.
"So the odds are that young African American males are not going to have an easy pathway into college," Wilson says. "This is the kind of program that begins to reverse those odds."
"The young men that are coming out of this partnership with Milwaukee are not going to be bouncing a basketball and throwing a football. They’re going to be scholars – and invest deeply in the life of the mind."
Thornton says Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King, Jr., represents a "great African American community where young men go and grow and do great things." And this partnership offers an example to younger students, he says:"'If these guys can do it, I grew up with these guys, I can do it, too.'"
"If young African American men begin to see that there is a way out and that the hurdle to get to that new place is lowered, if not erased, by this kind of an initiative where scholarship funds are provided not just for one semester or one year, but for all four years, that's a big deal, okay," Thornton says. "And we believe that's going to make them better students and we believe that's going to make them more ambitious and we believe that's going to begin to change those odds, those circumstances that you see too many young African American males being victimized by."
Providing student support
Thornton says MPS is building a college-going culture by strengthening the K through 12 pipeline and building college access centers throughout the city, with the help of grants. Additionally, high expectations are being integrated in the curriculum. Thornton says the partnership also provides support to the accepted students once they attend Morehouse, giving them something like "an insurance policy."
"Now that they're accepted, they will matriculate and graduate and hopefully come back to Milwaukee and do great things," he says.
Wilson says Morehouse College provides a nurturing environment to all its students, but will provide special support to the partnership's students.
"We are paying close attention to the experience these young men have," he says. "We want to make sure that there's return on the investment made by our partners in Milwaukee because this is an extraordinary thing that they're doing."
And Thornton says those corporate sponsors of the partnership have made these young men attending or about to attend Morehouse the "sons of the city," and will often check on the students when they are in Atlanta.
"Now that they're accepted, they will matriculate and graduate and hopefully come back to Milwaukee and do great things."
Both MPS and Morehouse hope to scale up this partnership to a national level. Wilson says he's already talking to superintendents from districts in other major cities.
"Greg and I have already talked about it, getting together with other corporate communities to replicate this," he says. "It's worthy of replication and we believe we can already show that there is enormous positive return on that investment and we know that's what the corporate community likes both on their business end and their philanthropic end."
Thornton says the Morehouse partnership has already inspired other universities like Mount Mary, UWM, and Cardinal Stritch, to reach out to talk about creating their own "seamless pathways between 12th grade and higher education."