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Ten days before the start of classes, and nearing the end of a weeklong course meant to prepare them for the fall semester, the members of Team Orange walked one by one to the front of a classroom at Madison Area Technical College and told their peers how ready they were for their freshman year.

The class included 17 of the 210 new MATC students who make up the first cohort of the school’s Scholars of Promise program, which provides scholarships and support services to help low-income students both afford and succeed in higher education.

“College isn’t as scary as everyone’s made it seem,” Zach Smith-Clark said to his classmates in the Learning to Learn course. “It’s something I can accomplish.”

That’s the sort of confidence MATC officials want the Scholars of Promise to have as they start classes on Monday.

Because while most participants won’t have to pay a dime toward tuition thanks to financial aid and scholarships the program provides, the students — three-fourths of whom are the first in their families to attend college — will still face hurdles.

Those in the Team Orange classroom talked about balancing jobs, school and homework; they contrasted the better study habits they learned with the apathy they felt in high school.

Like a lot of 18-year-olds, Adrianne Lor prefers to sleep in but said the course showed her how important it is to wake up early and get to her classes on time.

And, Lor said, it taught her to stop telling herself “I can’t do this.”

First year of program

MATC announced the Scholars of Promise program last year. It provides grants funded by the college’s private foundation to cover the gap between the cost of tuition and what students’ scholarships provide.

Institutions and states across the country have launched “promise” programs in an effort to help more low-income students attend college as the cost of higher education rises.

Participants must meet academic standards — a 2.25 minimum grade-point average in high school, which they must maintain through college, along with attendance requirements — and come from families that the federal government estimates can contribute less than $3,000 toward their education to get the scholarship. (Some students come from families with higher incomes; they don’t receive the program’s grants, but can take part in its support services.)

MATC advisers help students fill out financial aid forms, and participants are required to take part in a college success course like the Learning to Learn camp, said Javier Neira Salazar, who manages the Scholars of Promise program.

“Now you know you can afford college,” Neira Salazar said of the message he offers scholars. “Let’s make sure you’re successful.”

“It’s not just about the money, but how are you going to be successful and reach your goals?”

The Learning to Learn program sought to get students excited about the start of school, make them comfortable on campus and ensure they know about the various MATC offices that are there to support them. Participants took a tour to familiarize them with the college’s massive Truax building and got a tutorial on the software program many classes use, among other activities.

Students spent most of the week in small groups, like Team Orange, which they will meet with each week through the school year. They are also paired with mentors and coaches to help them stay on track, Neira Salazar said.

“If you have a bad day, you can always talk to me,” Sue Peterson, lead mentor for Team Orange, told her class on the last day of the camp.

Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who studies college “promise” programs such as the one at MATC, said those types of support services are critical in helping low-income students stay in school and graduate.

“Those may end up being more effective than the money,” Kelchen said.

‘Work or education’

While Scholars of Promise takes care of low-income students’ tuition, it doesn’t pay for expenses such as housing, transportation or textbooks that can make up the majority of the cost of attending the school.

And as students’ expenses are going up, for many of them, incomes are dropping — several said attending college would mean cutting back on their hours at jobs, and making less money as a result.

“It’s difficult to work more than 20 or 25 hours per week and do well in your classes,” Kelchen said. “The alternative for many students is loans.”

Lor, who quit her job at Hy-Vee to focus on school, will rent textbooks to keep that cost down.

The morning shifts Jorge Castaneda typically works at a fast food chain conflict with his classes, so he’s changing his schedule and working less as a result.

Castaneda plans to carpool with a friend for the half-hour commute to the MATC campus from his home in Waterloo to save money.

“I had to either choose work or education,” he said. “Gas money is going to be a pain.”

Neira Salazar said officials are working to connect students with on-campus jobs that would be easier to get to and offer more flexible schedules. Work and transportation, he said, are the “No. 1 priority” for many students.

Perla Neblett, an 18-year-old from Madison, expects she’ll have to work less at her part-time home care job to stay on top of her schoolwork. While she’ll miss the paycheck, Neblett said she knows it’s necessary — she’s starting a dental hygiene program at MATC and hopes to transfer to a four-year college.

“Me going to work and having to come home and do (homework) is not going to be easy,” Neblett said. “It’s just what has to happen so I can come and do what I’m supposed to do here.”

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