Nov 15 7:45 AM

The city where students go to college for free

The cost of college is becoming an insurmountable hurdle for many families around the country—but not so for the residents of Kalamazoo, a small, vibrant city of 75,000 in southwestern Michigan. Eight years ago, then-superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools Janice Brown made a shocking announcement: Local unnamed donors had pledged to pay the tuition at any Michigan public college or university—for every student who graduated from the school district’s high schools.

Known as the Kalamazoo Promise, this one-of-a-kind program covers 100 percent of in-state tuition for students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten to 12th grade; 65 percent for students who attend grades 9 to 12. The only requirements of the scholarship are that students live within the boundaries of the Kalamazoo School District and that they attend KPS continuously. Students can use the funds for up to 10 years after graduation from high school.

“I believe I probably would be dead or in jail right now, to be honest with you.”

Maurice Washington

Since the program’s launch, about 2,800 Kalamazoo Public School graduates have taken advantage of Promise funds, totaling $50 million thus far—all paid by anonymous donors without the aid of an endowment or other fund-raising efforts. And there’s no end in sight for the Promise—it’s guaranteed by the donors to continue in perpetuity.

The program has proved life-changing for many students in Kalamazoo—44% of whom are African-American—who might never have attended college otherwise. College student Maurice Washington is a living example of that. He was homeless before he moved to Kalamazoo, where he grew up in its poorest neighborhoods; his father is in prison and his mother is a high school dropout. But thanks to the Promise, he graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2011 and is a junior with a 3.8 GPA majoring in social work at Western Michigan University. Without the Promise, he says, “I believe I probably would be dead or in jail right now, to be honest with you.”

Washington is not alone; since the start of the program, 95 percent of Kalamazoo high school graduates have enrolled in at least one semester of college. College completion rates are harder to measure at this time, because six to eight years must past before numbers can be assessed accurately, says Michelle Miller-Adams, a fellow with the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and an author of a book on the Promise. Thus, the only college comparison data available between Promise students and others nationwide is for 2006 graduates. “But our initial data suggests that Promise scholars are going to college, progressing and completing at higher rates than the national average,” she says. The Promise estimates that nearly 400 students have earned bachelor’s degrees, while nearly 500 have some type of higher-education credential, such as a certificate, associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The allure of free college tuition has proven to be a big draw for Kalamazoo, a city whose middle class population has increasingly left its borders for surrounding areas—and has lost major industries such as paper, auto and pharmaceuticals, to other regions, as well. When the Promise was announced in November 2005, Kristin and John Fiore’s family lived in the neighboring Gull Lake School District, just outside of Kalamazoo. Upon hearing about the Promise, they immediately bought a house within the city’s limits so that their three daughters could benefit from the program.

“Someone will always want to live in the suburbs, but I want my kids to go to college without debt,” says Fiore. Today, their oldest daughter, Jenna, is a junior at the University of Michigan and gets 70% of her tuition covered there, since they moved to district when Jenna was in seventh grade. Their other daughters Julia and Josie are both currently in high school and will have an even higher percentage of their in-state tuition covered. “The Promise has changed our lives,” says Fiore, who estimates that her family will save more than $100,000 on college tuition for her three girls—which has made it possible for her to open a yoga studio in downtown Kalamazoo this winter.

While the identity of the local donors who made the Promise possible is a fiercely guarded secret, their intent behind the Promise is not, says Miller-Adams. “It’s very clear to me that the donors structured this program to create a major, transformative investment in the community,” she says. “The donors are very serious about the residency requirement. That suggests that it’s about tying families to the community, to strengthen the urban core, to create a place that attracts and retains businesses and educated individuals.”

Though some of these economic impacts will require more time to assess, the Promise has certainly achieved positive measurable outcomes in its eight years. For example, since the Promise was announced, enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools has shot up by 24%, and KPS Superintendent Michael Rice says that the district has improved on virtually every other metric, including test scores, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement enrollment. And increased enrollment equals more teacher jobs and tuition revenue from the state.

What’s more, two thirds of Promise grads end up attending school in Kalamazoo, which means their tuition dollars continue to benefit the local community. Western Michigan University, a large public research university located in the city, enrolls the largest number of Kalamazoo Promise students. All told, “That’s $30 million, in our community, swirling around, that wasn’t there before,” says Brown, who was executive director of the program until this past June and is the only person who knows the identity of the donors.

There are 30 other communities around the country hoping to follow Kalamazoo’s lead, albeit without the deep pockets of the generous donors behind the Kalamazoo Promise. Many gathered recently at PromiseNet 2013, a conference held in Kalamazoo to share best practices around place-based scholarship programs.

Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, was one of the attendees. After learning about the Kalamazoo Promise, Pittsburgh launched a similar program in 2007, says Ghubril, to strengthen the vitality of the region. It’s not as far-reaching as the Kalamazoo Promise—funds are used to cover tuition after a student’s financial aid kicks in, and students must complete GPA and attendance requirements—but it has already boosted post-secondary enrollment for PPS grads. “Before the Promise was rolled out, only about 20 percent of students were completing post-secondary education. Today we’re hovering around the mid-fifties, and our goal is 80 percent,” says Ghubril.

With 26,000 students in Pittsburgh Public Schools—more than twice as many as Kalamazoo—Ghubril estimated the need for a $250 million endowment to make its scholarship program possible. Thanks to a $100 million matching donation from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Promise is on its way.

Miller-Adams, who helps organize the PromiseNet conference, recognizes that these other communities face a tougher battle: “Some of our programs are struggling because they have these continuing fund development needs. They essentially spend all their time raising money,” she says. Indeed, they’re not all as lucky as Kalamazoo, whose wealthy local benefactors have created a unique opportunity for residents of this small city. Says Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell: “Anyone that could [make this kind of donation] could probably live anywhere in the world, and they live in this small, unique, funky, vibey little place with weird name called Kalamazoo.”

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