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Area seniors in the high school class of 2017 will have the opportunity to attend Madison Area Technical College without paying tuition under the college's new Scholars of Promise program. Starting this fall, MATC will work with school districts in its area to help prepare low-income juniors and seniors for college, then cover whatever tuition costs aren't paid by scholarships.

Hundreds of low-income high school students across south-central Wisconsin could attend Madison Area Technical College without paying for tuition under a new program that officials hope will help more young people see that college is open to them.

Next fall’s class of high school seniors will be the first group of students eligible for the MATC Scholars of Promise program. If they meet income limits, have a 2.25 GPA and keep an attendance rate higher than 80 percent their senior year, MATC will pay for whatever costs from tuition and fees the students’ scholarships don’t cover for up to three years.

The program will be open to students in the MATC district, which includes nearly all of Dane County and parts of 11 others. MATC estimates it could help about 350 students afford college each year.

Officials have been organizing Scholars of Promise, which was originally called Madison Promise and is modeled on similar free-tuition programs at community and technical colleges across the country, for several months. They will hold a press conference officially announcing it on Tuesday.

Along with the tuition help, Keith Cornille, MATC’s senior vice president for student development and success, said the college is working with local school districts to put together a range of services that keep students on track, starting while they’re in high school and continuing through their time at MATC.

“This is all of us working together to make sure that (students) … see that college is possible, and have the supports early on to make that a reality,” Cornille said.

Students will still have to shoulder other costs associated with attending college — Scholars of Promise doesn’t cover expenses such as textbooks or housing that make up the majority of the cost of attending MATC, according to the college’s estimates.

But Alex Fralin, assistant superintendent for secondary schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, said the program will remove one barrier students face in getting a college education.

“It’s a real stab at the equity challenge that our district and our college are facing,” Fralin said.

MATC estimates it will cost about $1.1 million to put one year’s worth of students through the program, Cornille said.

It will be funded by the Madison College Foundation, and won’t use state or local tax money, Cornille said. He declined to say how much money the foundation has raised for the program.

To qualify, students will have to fill out the federal Free Application For Student Aid and have an expected family contribution of $3,000 or less. The program is only open to high school students, not those currently enrolled at MATC or adults who come back to school.

Filling out the FAFSA will determine how much participants will receive from the federal Pell Grant program for low-income students, which provided up to $5,775 for the 2015-16 school year, though not all students got the full grant.

Once those students know how much the federal government will give them, as well as any state grants or scholarships, the Scholars of Promise program will pay for the difference between those awards and MATC’s annual tuition of about $4,700.

Although the program launches with this year’s rising high school seniors — meaning those who will enroll at MATC in the fall of 2017 — its efforts to support students will start during their junior year. Cornille said MATC will reach out to those students and their families during the school year with information about the program and work with guidance counselors to offer summer classes at the college so kids can brush up on subjects in which they need more help.

Fralin said working with students before their senior year will be an important step toward keeping them on track for college.

“The earlier the better, especially for those students who are right on the cusp of making key decisions about their future,” Fralin said.

While they are at the college, students will have to stay enrolled at MATC full time while in good academic standing, which means maintaining a GPA of 2.0 or better.

Along with the support services in high school, MATC will provide workshops in financial literacy, career options and study skills to help students in college.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a former UW-Madison professor who studies issues affecting low-income college students, warned the full-time requirement could pose a challenge for less well-off students who might have to reduce their course load because of work or family demands on their time.

But overall, Goldrick-Rab said, the program’s rules do a good job of making sure its barriers to entry are “not set so high that you’re excluding the very people that we’re trying to help.”

According to Goldrick-Rab, Scholars of Promise could benefit students who fall into a middle ground among their peers. They are not those with high GPAs who are already applying to colleges and getting scholarships, nor are they students who have fallen behind in high school to the point where they aren’t ready for college academically.

They are often students who could go to college, she said, “but they just can’t afford it.”

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.