Matthew Martin started working on his associate degree while he was still attending Lowell High School. He was a member of the first cohort of students admitted to the Launch U program offered by the Kent Intermediate School District.
Earlier this spring, Martin finished his studies and walked away from Grand Rapids Community College with an associate degree in mechanical design. The best part? He didn’t have to spend a penny on tuition.
“The main thing that pushed me to do it was [the free degree],” Martin says. When his mom saw the program was available, she encouraged him to take advantage of the opportunity. So Martin joined a group of two dozen students from around the county to enroll in Launch U.
“We were the first cohort,” he says. “We were the guinea pigs.”
Not everyone who joined that first cohort made it to end of the program, but 13 students earned their associate degree this spring. Another three will wrap up their studies in the summer, according to Kristen Doneth, coordinator for Launch U.
As one of the spring graduates, Martin is hoping to leverage his education and experience into a career in orthopedic design. “I think it would be a really fulfilling job,” he says.
Since Martin started his program, Launch U has expanded to offer a general associate degree and an IT program. While these two options are filled for the fall semester, there is still space for students who want to join the next mechanical design cohort.
Early College Makes Higher Education Free
Launch U is an early college program that is offered through a partnership between KISD and GRCC. Students enter the program their sophomore year of high school and take all their classes at the Kent Career Technical Center in 10th and 11th grade. In 12th grade, classes are split between KCTC and GRCC, and for the final year of the program, all classes are taken at the community college. Each cohort can accept 24-25 students, and students enrolled in public or charter schools within KISD are eligible to participate in Launch U.
“The goal is to earn an associate degree, but it’s not a requirement,” Doneth says. Even those who don’t earn an associate degree are learning career readiness skills.
Officially, Launch U is considered a 5-year high school program, and graduates don’t complete all their high school credits until the final year. Although students don’t technically receive their high school diploma for another year, all students have participated in their high school class’s commencement ceremonies.
“We’ve not heard of any student not able to walk [at their high school graduation],” Doneth says.
For Martin, that meant crossing the stage at Lowell High School as part of the Class of 2020 even though he would still wrap up his final credits within the next year. Although an unconventional way to complete high school, Martin recommends Launch U to anyone committed to seeing the program through to the end.
“It was well worth it,” he says, adding that Launch U provided the chance to work with students from other schools and brush up on non-academic skills such as resume writing. Plus, he notes, “I got to meet a number of professors who were truly amazing.”