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Grads at 5 Pinellas high schools offered free tuition, fees at SPC

The new scholarship program at St. Petersburg College was inspired by numbers showing that many low-income students haven’t been applying.
 
A pedestrian passes an entrance to the St. Petersburg College campus in downtown St. Petersburg. The college announced this week that it will offer free tuition and fees for graduates from the Class of 2023 at five Pinellas County high schools.
A pedestrian passes an entrance to the St. Petersburg College campus in downtown St. Petersburg. The college announced this week that it will offer free tuition and fees for graduates from the Class of 2023 at five Pinellas County high schools. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2020) ]
Published April 12, 2023

Graduates from five Pinellas County high schools are now eligible to earn an associate degree at St. Petersburg College for no cost through a pilot scholarship program, the school announced this week.

The SPC Promise scholarship offers free tuition and fees to all 2023 graduates of Clearwater, Lakewood, Northeast, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs high schools. Students who are fully eligible for the Pell Grant will receive an additional $500 to defray the costs of textbooks and other expenses.

Kellie Ziemak, executive director of student affairs and enrollment management at SPC, said enrollment and income trends pointed to the need for the program.

When she started in her position, she said, she came across the American Community Survey, put together by the U.S. Census Bureau. A few numbers popped out at her.

Kellie Ziemak
Kellie Ziemak [ Twitter ]

About 43% of children in the 33705 zip code, the area around Lakewood High, lived in poverty. In the 34689 zip code near Tarpon Springs High, 42% of those renting used more than 35 percent of their income on rent. It was 55% in the zip code around Clearwater High. That was before housing costs started to rise.

In the zip code around Pinellas Park High, 32% of those older than 25 had only a high school diploma. Near Northeast High, the median income was $35,000.

Ziemak then pulled up data showing how many people in the corresponding zip codes had applied to attend SPC. The numbers had been declining since 2019.

“That is not a trend that we wanted to see,” Ziemak said. “We want to see these areas break their generational cycles of poverty.” The numbers, she said, prompted the college to examine whether its actions matched its values.

School officials set aside $2.5 million to cover the costs for as many of the graduates at the five schools as they can.

To apply, students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, and a St. Petersburg College application. They also must enroll for at least six credit hours in the fall.

To maintain the scholarship, students must complete the federal student aid form each year, maintain a 2.0 GPA, enroll for at least six credits per semester and graduate within three years.

An average student with a high school diploma earns $26,000 a year, Ziemak said, while those with an associate or associate of applied science degree earn $40,000 and $54,000 respectively.

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“This is where we’re really putting our investment into our values,” she said.

This fall, the college will reassess, with hopes to expand and explore working with community partners in the future.

Ziemak advises students from other high schools who wish to explore options at SPC to visit the link now.spc.edu/explore23. Last year, the college awarded more than $6 million in other scholarships.