SANDUSKY, Ohio — LeBron James is giving kids from Akron — ones with challenging backgrounds like his — the chance to go to college for free.
The NBA star has partnered with the University of Akron to provide a guaranteed four-year scholarship to the school for students in James' "I Promise" program who qualify. The scholarship will cover tuition and the university's general service fee — currently $9,500 per year.
It's the latest example of James, who often refers to himself "as just a kid from Akron" giving back to a community that helped raise him.
"It's the reason I do what I do," said James, who announced the program Thursday while hosting an event for students at Cedar Point Amusement Park. "These students have big dreams, and I'm happy to do everything I can to help them get there. They're going to have to earn it, but I'm excited to see what these kids can accomplish knowing that college is in their futures."
The school and the LeBron James Family Foundation are still finalizing the criteria for the scholarships. The students will have to graduate high school within Akron's public school system and achieve standard testing requirements as well as fulfill a community service obligation.
James has had a long-standing relationship with the university. As his celebrity soared in high school, James played many game on the school's campus and the four-time MVP deepened his connection with Akron soon after he turned professional.
"It means so much because, as a kid growing up in the inner city and a lot of African-American kids, you don't really think past high school," said James, who bypassed college to jump to the NBA. "You don't really know your future. You hear high school all the time, and you graduate high school and then you never think past that because either it's not possible or your family's not financially stable to even be able to support a kid going to college."
In recent months, James and members of his foundation met with Akron President Dr. Scott Scarborough hoping to establish a program that would have long-term impact on the community. The result was an initiative they believe will inspire the area's youth to achieve and reach their potential.
Michele Campbell, the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation, said James, who grew up in a single-parent home, became visibly emotional when discussing the impact the program will have on the kids and their families.
"He has a chance to change their futures," Campbell said. "Not everybody can be an NBA superstar, so to be able to provide the framework to make your dreams come true is overpowering."
The university is renaming its education department the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education. The first class eligible for the scholarships will graduate in 2021.
The scholarship program was welcomed, positive news for Akron, which announced $40 million in widespread cuts — including the loss of the baseball team — this summer due to financial troubles.
"Every institution goes has to go through an adjustment from time to time and you look at what you've funded in the past and you look at the things that are new opportunities and new initiatives for the future and this fits in our sweet spot," he said. "This is a program that focuses on the local area. This is a program that rewards earning your way into college. I think LeBron's philosophy is that things are earned not given and that aligns well with our emphasis on experience and learning and career service and education.
"We're excited about this and it does represent what the university wants to be about in the future. In the end, this is a university that makes students of all ages dreams come true, so this seems to fit nicely with what LeBron wants for his kids and what we want for the university."
JPMorgan Chase is providing a program to track the progress of students in the program.