Delaware’s SEED program: Free college education — or a free ride?

Mark Brainard Photo by .

Mark Brainard

DOVER — In May, Tennessee gained significant attention with the signing of the Tennessee Reconnect Act, making community college “free” for all in the state.

That follows the passage of a 2014 measure giving recent high school graduates access to free community college.

For those bills, Tennessee has been heralded by some for being the first state to make community college cost-free.

Not so fast, says Delaware Technical Community College President Mark Brainard.

Delaware has had a program allowing many students to attend community college at no cost to them for the past 11 years. More than 9,000 students have taken advantage of it.

The Student Excellence Equals Degree, or SEED, program enables Delawareans who graduate from high school to enter DelTech the following fall and receive free tuition as long as they meet certain conditions.

“It’s a win-win-win-win all over,” Dr. Brainard insists. “Delaware families are winning because they have a tremendous opportunity to benefit from a pretty significant investment that the state is making in young people.”

But, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, questions why taxpayers are picking up the tab for students who could probably afford to pay to attend DelTech themselves.

“If you’re in need, there are programs to help you, and if you are not in need, why are taxpayers responsible for paying?” he asked.

He was the only lawmaker to vote against the final version of the SEED bill in 2005.

Dr. Brainard, on the other hand, believes “young people are benefiting because they’re getting positive messages from the state of Delaware at very early ages that if you work hard, you get good grades, you stay out of trouble, you can go to college for free. And that’s a pretty powerful message.

“And the state’s businesses and employers are winning out of this because the SEED Scholarship is an investment in the workforce, and as I said, I think the state of Delaware as a community is benefiting because any time we enhance the number of people getting a college degree, I mean, we all benefit from that.”

To qualify for SEED, Delaware students must attend DelTech after graduating from a First State high school. They must have graduated with, depending on the school’s grading system, a grade point average of at least 2.5 (where 4.0 is straight A’s), an 80 on a 100-point scale or a C-plus letter grade.

Applicants must be full-time students, meaning they are taking at least 12 credits per semester, and they cannot have any felony convictions.

Home-schooled students are also eligible: They must submit an academic transcript or post an SAT score of 1350 or ACT score of 19.

Students who are illegally residing in the state can benefit from SEED as well, with many of the same requirements as Delaware citizens. They must also submit a notarized form certifying their immigration status and stating they plan to become a legal resident once eligible.

Every applicant is required to complete financial aid forms, and if financial aid covers the entire cost of tuition, SEED does not apply. Because all funding for SEED comes from the state’s General Fund, the state effectively saves money with every SEED-eligible student who receives a Pell Grant.

In the program’s first 11 years, 14,085 students have met the criteria for SEED, although 4,892 ended up having financial aid pay for all their tuition costs.
In 2016, 856 students attended DelTech for free through SEED, about 18 percent of the college’s total full-time enrollment of 4,740.

To remain in the SEED program, students must remain enrolled at DelTech with no gaps, although the college will grant exceptions in select cases, such as when a student has a serious medical condition. Participants must have a GPA of at least 2.5 by the end of their first year, must not be convicted of any felonies and must gain at least 24 credits by the end of the summer semester.

SEED is good for six semesters. It does not cover the cost of books or fees other than tuition.

For the upcoming academic year, DelTech is charging $145 per credit up to 15 credits, at which point a student pays a flat $2,175 for tuition instead. A few other fees, such as a $15-a-semester registration fee, also exist.

In the current fiscal year, $5.65 million is allocated from the state to the program. SEED has been fully funded by the General Assembly every year since its inception.

Success rate and public perception

So how successful is SEED?

According to DelTech spokeswoman Christine Gillan, 56 percent of participants who entered the program from 2006 to 2013 have graduated, transferred to another college or university or are still enrolled at DelTech — what DelTech defines as its success rate.

“Fall 2015 SEED students are retained at a much higher rate (72.5%) than non-SEED students (52.8%), and the national two-year college retention rate (58.4%),” Ms. Gillan said in an email.

Out of the 637 students in the initial class of 2006, 248 graduated, 121 transferred to another school and 13 are still enrolled, giving DelTech a success rate of 60 percent in that case. The graduation rate for that group, however, is much lower: 38.9 percent.

In recent years, some left-leaning officials around the country, including former President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have called for making community college free.

Supporters of the idea argue educating young Americans is paramount and covering the cost of tuition opens doors that would otherwise be shut to many.

But others are troubled by the price tag.

In June, House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson, R-Hockessin, said the state regularly pays “for programs that are outside of the core responsibility of state government.”

While she did not single out SEED specifically, Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, expanded on that thought, noting “free college sounds great,” but the price tag does not magically disappear.

Earlier this month, Sen. Lavelle said he wants the state to track the graduation rate of SEED to determine if it is a good investment.

He’s also concerned many participants may not feel a need to fully devote themselves to school since they are not paying for it.

“The things most of us get for free we don’t value,” he said.

Most people commenting on the Delaware State News’ Facebook page in response to questions about the SEED program were effusive in their praise.

“It is absolutely worth it!” wrote Sunny Schmidt. “My son graduated from the Automotive Technician program at DelTech, in 2015, under the SEED program. My daughter will start her second year in the Homeland Security and Emergency Management program, at DelTech using SEED. It would be great if it could be extended for a 4 year degree program.”

Many comments claimed the program helps students who otherwise may have been unable to or were uninterested in pursuing their education further.

“As a teacher, I have seen the SEED program inspire students who might not have attended college to give it a try, and I have seen students work harder to pull grades up to make sure they qualify,” Andie Davis wrote. “I think it is a great incentive for students, offers access to both programs that transfer to traditional colleges and vocational programming, and improves the educational and earning power of the community.”

A few people did question the value to taxpayers, and even some SEED supporters objected to residents living in the state illegally having access to the scholarship, but most had nothing but positive things to say about the program.

The proposal that ultimately became SEED languished in the General Assembly for several years before finally passing.

Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, the sponsor of the bill creating SEED, originally wanted to make tuition free for not just DelTech but also for Delaware State University and the University of Delaware.

“Some kids are told by a parent directly don’t ever think about going to college because we can’t afford it,” he said in 2006. “That sets an expectation of negativity that never gets overcome.”

Eventually, with then Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s backing, a compromise proposal focused on just DelTech students found success.

In 2010, lawmakers created the Inspire program at Delaware State University. Inspire helps cover the cost of tuition for students provided they meet criteria similar to what is required for SEED.

SEED can also apply to University of Delaware students. UD attendees who are accepted into the Associate in Arts Program take classes at DelTech but are considered UD students and, after completing 60 credits, can move to the university’s main campus.

They are eligible for SEED until they complete the program and earn an associate’s degree.

The General Assembly has attempted to expand SEED over the years.

In 2016, a proposal backed by then Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, would have made part-time students eligible for SEED.

“Some students who need these scholarships the most can’t access them, despite meeting academic requirements, because current rules mandate that they attend school full time and without interruption,” Gov. Markell said in his 2016 State of the State address. “But where does that leave the aspiring students who are caring for young children or elderly parents or are working to support their families?”

However, the bill met opposition partly due to the added cost of around $430,000 in year one.

SEED remains a strong point of pride for DelTech and many state officials, who say it plays a critical role in shaping the next generation.

“Where else can you go and have a program that provides a huge return for such a modest investment of taxpayer resources?” Dr. Brainard said.

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