BELDING — A free college education? It’s not easy to believe, but at Belding High School earning an associate degree one year out of high school will soon be a reality — at no cost to the student.
Belding is partnering with Davenport University for a “Middle College” program, which will enroll students, beginning their junior year of high school, as students at Davenport.
The program, which is relatively new to West Michigan, will require students to attend Belding for five years, but in that five years they will walk away with their high school diploma and an associate degree from Davenport — all paid for by Belding Area Schools.
“We’ve been told our kids have to be more college-ready, that’s what’s going to turn the economy around — students being more prepared for a career,” Belding Superintendent Leslie Mount said. “This is really what the governor and the state are pushing — new, innovative ways to deliver instruction and get kids what they need. The odds are pretty good that some of these kids that are taking college courses in high school are going to be more prepared and perform better.”
Mount said funding for the program is possible because students are eligible for a fifth year of state funding. According to Mount, Belding collects approximately $7,800 per student in the district. Belding will pay $90 per credit hour at Davenport for each student.
“We are looking for at least 12 kids to participate in this program in its first year,” Mount said. “When those 12 or more students enter their fifth year and we are able to collect state aid for them, that will in itself pay for all of their college courses at Davenport. Belding High School will just about break even in the process.”
Students will enroll at Davenport as juniors at Belding and are required to have a grade point average (GPA) of at least 2.75 to participate in the program. In that first year, students will take approximately two classes (six to eight credits) per semester. All classes during that year will be offered at Belding, taught by either Davenport professors or Belding teachers who meet the qualifications to teach a college course.
As seniors, students will take on a heavier college load of approximately three college classes (nine to 11 credits) per semester, with reduced high school classes to schedule accordingly. Some of those classes will require students to travel to Davenport.
At the end of that senior year, students will participate in all graduating activities, including walking with their senior class, but they will not receive their high school diploma. Students will return to take one class at Belding during a fifth year of education, with the rest of their classes, approximately four or five courses (14-16 credits), taken at Davenport.
By returning for that fifth year, Belding receives the necessary state aid for each student to pay for their college tuition.
Belding High School Principal Brett Zuver said this is an incredibly opportunity for students in Belding and that the school’s relationship with Davenport has been strong over the years.
“We’ve developed such a good relationship with Davenport,” Zuver said. “For the last couple of years, our entire freshman class has toured Davenport’s campus. They’ve just gone above and beyond on so many levels for us here. We were very excited when they decided they wanted to pursue this with us.”
It was during one of those freshman visits that current sophomore Christopher Wucher, 15, decided Davenport would be a good fit for him.
Hearing that he could earn an associate’s degree for free, he jumped at the opportunity, attending an informational meeting at Belding High School on Thursday night.
“It sounds challenging,” he said. “It’s free, obviously, which is really nice. When I visited Davenport my freshman year, it seemed like they had a very nice setup. I’d like to pursue something to do with accounting, as I’ve been doing really well in math.”
For Christopher’s mother, Lynette Wucher, this opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I have a senior right now and we’re having a very difficult time figuring out where he wants to go to college,” she said. “He wanted to go to Calvin College, but the funding for that has made it impossible in a family of five children. Being able to get a two year degree that is paid for — what more could I ask for? It’s an answered prayer.”
About 35 students attended Thursday night’s meeting with their parents as representatives from Davenport outlined the program in detail, answering questions throughout the meeting.
Many questions were directed towards concerns of students who are multiple sport athletes or participate in band, but Davenport High School Admissions Representative Joe Beel said the college is very flexible and would do “whatever it can” to work with the students.
“When you get students on our campus they see what we have to offer and they see the success of our students that are graduating and getting jobs in the market today, which is very tough,” he said. “We want these kids to experience Davenport, and we think their experience is going to be so positive they’ll continue on with us to earn their bachelors, and even if they don’t, they walk away with an associate degree.”
Mount said she is hoping this opportunity will put Belding Area Schools in a new light, attracting students and parents into the Belding area knowing they can earn a free college education.
“I’m hoping that parents living in the area will say there’s a place my child can get a college education for free, and hopefully this would entice people to want to choose this city as a place to live,” she said. “We really are trying to partner with the city and the chamber and make this the most attractive place possible for families to be in and this is just one more option.”