How to Make a College Promise: Lessons from Kalamazoo

Posted on January 16, 2015. Filed under: Uncategorized |

This blog post was co-written with my colleague at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, Bridget Timmeney. It was originally published through the W.E. Upjohn Institute blog on January 12, 2015 and was reprinted in the Michigan College Access Network blog on January 13, 2015.

As researchers focusing on issues of employment and education, we have been studying the impact of free college since the Kalamazoo Promise was announced just over nine years ago.  The President’s plan parallels the Kalamazoo Promise in important aspects, making the well‐researched Kalamazoo experience highly relevant to the debate about to begin in Congress. Clearly, low‐income and first‐generation college students face many barriers to higher education: adequate funding is just one hurdle. Our research shows, however, that reducing those financial barriers indisputably increases the number of young people attending post‐secondary institutions, progressing through school, and completing degrees or certificates.

The president’s program was modeled in part on the Tennessee Promise, an initiative announced last year by Republican Governor Bill Haslam that makes community college free for all Tennessee high‐school graduates beginning in 2015. The Tennessee Promise, in turn, was inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise and a growing number of other place‐based scholarship programs in places as diverse as El Dorado, Arkansas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In an important regard, the President’s plan differs from the Tennessee Promise and takes a lesson from Kalamazoo. Like many other scholarship programs, the Tennessee Promise is a “last‐dollar” program, meaning that funds are awarded after other sources of student loan financing are received. This structure has the unintended effect of benefiting middle‐income more than low‐income students, especially in the case of community colleges where federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants covers the full cost of community college.

By contrast, one of the best aspects of the President’s plan is that the tuition funding would be awarded first, making it possible for low‐income students to use their Pell grants to support living costs, thereby reducing the number of hours worked and making it possible for them to focus on their education. The Kalamazoo Promise pioneered this innovation, but only one other Promise program among the states has adopted it to date.

Even more critically, our research into the impact of Promise programs has shown that money alone is not the answer. In Kalamazoo and elsewhere, it has become clear that local community colleges must be ready to accommodate an influx of students, many of them low‐income or first‐generation college‐goers
who often require extra support at the post‐secondary level. Supporting new students will also make new demands on local K‐12 school districts and community‐based organizations. The academic expectations of community colleges must be clearly articulated to K‐12 district leadership so that the transition from high school to college is smooth and students can avoid having to spend time and money on developmental or remedial courses. We call this community alignment, and it is a critical element in the success of any scholarship program.

The president’s proposal improves on the Tennessee model in several respects. Importantly, students may attend half‐time. In Kalamazoo, we have found that part‐time attendance can ease the transition to college for students who may not be fully prepared. It is also far‐sighted that the free community college tuition under the president’s proposal applies not only to recent high school graduates, as the Chicago and Tennessee programs do, but also to adults who can benefit from going back to college. Just as the GI Bill in the 1940s dramatically expanded the proportion of young people attending college, laying the groundwork for the U.S. economy’s dynamic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, so does expanded access to community college for recent graduates and adults in need of greater human capital could help businesses assemble the globally competitive workforce of the 21st century.

We are at an exciting moment for college access, as a multitude of initiatives at the national, state, and local levels converge to expand opportunity, promote attainment, and reduce the cost of higher education. Some of the most innovative developments are taking place at the very local level, where place‐based scholarships like the Kalamazoo Promise are reshaping school districts, towns, and cities throughout the nation. They are an example of grassroots responses to local needs that is one of the great strengths of our policymaking framework. The president’s announcement provides much‐needed national leadership to move forward these multiple efforts. We hope that Congress will now join in, providing the resources needed for this investment in the nation’s economic future.

Guest Authors:

Michelle Miller-Adams

Michelle Miller-Adams, research associate at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and associate professor at Grand Valley State University

 Bridget Timmeney
Bridget Timmeney, special projects coordinator at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research


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More Choices for Kalamazoo Promise Students

Posted on June 10, 2014. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Today the Kalamazoo Promise announced the most important change to its the program in its nine-year history, substantially broadening the choices that Promise-eligible Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) students have when it comes to college attendance. Beginning with the Class of 2015, Kalamazoo Promise funding can be used to cover tuition and fees at the fifteen liberal arts colleges that are part of the Michigan Colleges Alliance. The Kalamazoo Promise will fund Promise-eligible students at the level of the average undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Michigan’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the MCA member institution will cover any difference between that tuition and fees amount and the amount of its own yearly tuition and fees.

The biggest impact of this change is to dramatically expand the choices of Promise-eligible students about where to use their scholarship. (With this announcement, the list of eligible institutions has grown from 43 to 58 schools throughout Michigan.) Small liberal arts colleges offer a different experience than large public universities enabling a better fit for some students; in addition, more than half of the newly eligible institutions have a religious affiliation, adding another dimension of choice. KPS graduates will no longer have to give up their Promise funding to pursue the path of liberal arts education in a small, residential setting, and lower-income graduates of KPS will have the same opportunities to access a private college as their middle- and upper-income peers.

The change is in keeping with the innovation and adaptation shown by the Kalamazoo Promise donors since the program was announced in 2005. Program changes introduced along the way – extending the time frame for use of the scholarship to 10 years, allowing students to attend Kalamazoo Valley Community College on a part-time basis, and including apprenticeship programs as an eligible use of Promise funding — have made it possible for more students to use their Promise funding in more flexible ways. This announcement adds a new element of flexibility to the many choices already enjoyed by Promise-eligible students and suggests that the Promise donors have embraced the notion of continuous improvement in the design of their scholarship program. It also indicates that the emergence of a national Promise movement that includes more than 30 programs to date has led to the development of new models that are now influencing decisions being made in Kalamazoo.

The announcement is also an example of the powerful effect the Kalamazoo Promise has had as a catalyst in many spheres. The expansion to include private colleges represents a true partnership, in which the colleges themselves will be contributing significant financial resources to support attendance by KPS graduates. Just as the Kalamazoo Promise donors through their gift have leveraged change in the K-12 school district and broader Kalamazoo community, this program change shows that their gift has also leveraged new resources from a new set of actors at the state level – resources that go directly toward enabling KPS students to have maximum choice in fulfilling their higher education goals.

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On saying no to Gretchen Whitmer (as much as I love her)

Posted on March 28, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Those of you in Michigan know what a dynamic figure we have in Gretchen Whitmer, Senate Democratic leader of our ultra-Republican upper house. (She’s brilliant. She’s beautiful. She recently opted not to run for Carl Levin’s Senate seat because she wants to have time to be a good mom to her two daughters.) One of Whitmer’s signature policy initiatives is the Michigan 2020 plan, a proposal to give all high-school graduates in the state a college scholarship. The plan, inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise, has virtually no chance of becoming law in Michigan, but it has been a valuable avenue for talking about the need to invest in education while our Republican legislature continues to cut K-12 funding and support for universities.

Normally, I love the opportunity to speak out on behalf of Senate Dems and the Kalamazoo Promise, but recently I found myself in the odd and somewhat uncomfortable position of saying no to one of Gretchen Whitmer’s aides who asked if I was interested in writing an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press. The goal would be to rebut some of the criticisms of Michigan 2020 offered by MSU School of Education Dean Don Heller in his own op-ed.

In truth, I do disagree with several of Dean Heller’s points, including his argument that financial aid for middle- and upper-middle-class students is somehow wasted because they can already afford to go to college. Such families are seriously stressed by rising tuition costs, and students often graduate with unsustainable debt loads that constrain their future choices. In Kalamazoo, the Promise has enabled students at all income levels to graduate virtually debt-free, opening up all kinds of possibilities for graduate study and jobs that pay a high social rather than monetary wage. No, my concerns about the Michigan 2020 plan lie elsewhere.

To me, the special brilliance of the Kalamazoo Promise donors is that they invented a scholarship program that serves as an economic development tool for the region. It requires not just money, but also strong community buy-in and the powerful alignment of multiple players. The place-based structure of Promise programs promotes this kind of alignment, which in turn helps improve the viability of urban school districts and core cities. A statewide program, in my opinion, would dilute this economic development impact and the value of Promise programs in strengthening high-poverty school districts that serve urban areas.

That being said, my heart is with Senator Whitmer and the Dems as they seek to leverage more funding for education. If they are successful, I would like to see this funding used for 1) high-quality pre-K for everyone; 2) higher per-pupil spending on K-12 students to reverse the draconian, Republican-enacted declines in the state’s foundation grant over the past few years; 3) more funding for higher ed, including a state-level needs-based scholarship, the reinstatement of a Michigan Promise-type merit program, and/or full funding for community college tuition for all; and 4) funding to support locally based and owned Promise programs.

Call me, Senator Whitmer, when you’d like me to put this in an op-ed!


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Kalamazoo Promise featured in The New York Times Magazine

Posted on September 14, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

It’s nice to see the Kalamazoo Promise getting some of the attention it deserves in this excellent New York Times magazine article by Ted C. Fishman. I spent a great deal of time with Ted during his many visits to Kalamazoo to research the article, and I thought he did a great job capturing the nuances of the program even with a tight word limit (he told me that his first draft was about three times longer). It’s been fascinating to read the online comments posted today in response to the article. Apart from the occasional racist rant (more articulate here than on our local newspaper site), there are many wonderful observations about how the most privileged among us can use their wealth to make a difference. I especially enjoyed the story about the $60 million football stadium in a small Texas town; as I said in the article, the genius of the Kalamazoo Promise donors is their decision to invest in human capital rather than, say, a stadium (although a few of them may be interested in that, too). Here is the comment I shared online:

“As the author of (to date) the only book on the Kalamazoo Promise, I want to underscore two points to complement Ted Fishman’s excellent article. First, the universal nature of the Kalamazoo Promise — everyone is eligible to attend whatever school to which they can gain admission — is a radical approach to college financial aid and one that has had positive effects for students ranging all along the continuum of academic achievement. Second (and this may have been underplayed in the article), the Kalamazoo Promise has been embraced and owned by people throughout the community, even those without a direct stake in the educational system. The donors offered an extraordinary gift — an investment set up to continue in perpetuity. As a result, education has taken on the central role in our community’s identity and vision for the future, and all kinds of folks are taking ownership to ensure we make the most of this opportunity. ”

For those worried about whether the impact of the Kalamazoo Promise is being assessed in any systematic way, rest assured that my colleagues at the Upjohn Institute and other researchers around the nation are paying close attention. Check out my colleague Tim Bartik’s blog to read about some of this work.

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Making the Most of Those College Years

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I recently marked the 18th birthday of my nephew and the advent of his freshman year by compiling a list of ways he could make the most of his college years. The list, initially posted on Facebook, was then published on the wonderful blog Grown and Flown, operated in part by my lifelong friend, Lisa Endlich Heffernan, and appeared today in print in our local paper, The Kalamazoo Gazette. It is available online here. Two points I’d like to add: 1) do some kind of internship and 2) don’t have unprotected sex.

One very sad thing is the comments that follow the link above, many of them hostile toward professors, college students, and indeed the very idea of higher education. There are so many points to argue with in these posts that I’ve refrained, but I do want to say that college is by any reckoning a beneficial investment in one’s future, political science degrees have value in the workplace (check out our Grand Valley State University political science alumni if you doubt that!), and just because you didn’t go to college doesn’t mean you should denigrate it for others.

The whole experience has been a quick education in the ways of social media. The original Facebook version of my list benefited greatly from the generous contributions of many of my online friends, former students, and colleagues. The blog version received more than 1800 direct hits within a couple of weeks, giving me more readers than have read some of my published books. And the online commentary makes me long for the days when the newspaper published “all the news fit to print,” and if you wanted to weigh in on it you had to type up a letter and pony up for a stamp. A mixed bag, but I’m happy to have had my thoughts on this topic shared more widely — especially since my nephew is now at college, and judging from his Facebook photos I’m pretty sure he’s following none of this advice.

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Why Promise Programs Should Cover Everyone

Posted on February 16, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I have written lately about the value of universality in Promise scholarship programs — why programs available to EVERYONE within a given school district or city are more effective agents of change than the traditional, merit-based scholarship model.

At this point close to 40 communities have established or are planning Promise programs, and about half of these have opted to limit their scholarships to students with 2.5 or 3.0 GPAs. IMHO this is a mistake.

For any community serious about 1) creating a college-going culture in its schools; 2) education-centered economic development; or 3) opening up opportunities for those kids least likely to attend college, universal programs have merit-based programs beat. Programs limited to the more successful students aren’t even much cheaper than universal programs, and their impact is far more constrained.

I am happy that I will have the opportunity to explore and strengthen this claim over the coming two years, as I embark on another book project. Thanks to Grand Valley State University for granting me a sabbatical, and to the W.E. Upjohn Institute and W.K. Kellogg Foundation for supporting my research. I will be posting interim findings here and on the Upjohn Institute web site, so stay tuned.

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Pass It On — a resource for building a college-going culture

Posted on July 20, 2011. Filed under: Uncategorized |

My friend and former Upjohn Institute colleague Sarah Klerk has just published Pass It On — a discussion tool and set of resources to help middle school students understand better why they need to prepare for college. It’s a great addition to efforts to build a college-going culture. Check out Sarah’s materials at the Pass It On site.

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KPS enrollment has grown by 20% since Promise was announced

Posted on October 11, 2010. Filed under: enrollment, Kalamazoo Promise, Uncategorized |

The September 29, 2010 headcount data from Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) shows that the upward trajectory in enrollment growth has continued for a fifth year. The preliminary headcount numbers show 12,409 students currently enrolled in KPS — a 3% increase over last year. Since the Kalamazoo Promise was announced in November 2005, enrollment in KPS has increased by more than 20 percent, from 10,187 in the 2004-05 academic year to 12,275 (estimated) this year (these are the blended FTE headcount numbers on which the state bases its funding). This is an extraordinary increase by any measure.

-The post-Promise increase reversed more than a decade of year-to-year declines in enrollment.

– KPS is one of only a handful of school districts in Southwest Michigan (and the only sizable one) to have experienced any enrollment growth this year. Public school enrollment was flat for the region as a whole.

– Comparable districts in the state continue to decline in enrollment — for example, Battle Creek Public Schools’ enrollment fell by over 7 percent, while Grand Rapids Public Schools and Detroit Public Schools took comfort from enrollment declines that were smaller than expected (this is what counts for good news in Michigan).

The enrollment numbers suggest that the Kalamazoo Promise and the very real process of school improvement that it helped to catalyze has made the district “stickier,” giving families a reason to come — and stay.

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PromiseNet 2010

Posted on June 17, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

The third annual PromiseNet conference is taking place today in Kalamazoo. It’s exciting to be with people from communities in 17 different states who are working to put education at the center of their economic development strategies. For details about the conference, see http://www.promisenet.us

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President Obama Recognizes Kalamazoo

Posted on May 4, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

The White House announced today that President Obama will speak at the June 10 commencement ceremonies of Kalamazoo Central High School. The visit will mark the first time a president has addressed a high-school graduating class; the White House has said they were looking for a school that would serve as a model for preparing students for college. Kalamazoo Central was selected by the president from over 1,000 applicants to the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. 

While a skeptic by nature, I felt that Kalamazoo Central had a good chance of winning the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. Of the six finalists, only two were typical high schools, rather than charter or magnet schools, and the other served a largely affluent suburban area. Central’s video was a bit rough around the edges, but clearly had been produced by the kids themselves and had some dramatic (even wacky) touches that were both meaningful and endearing.

The decision has a lot to do with the Kalamazoo Promise, but more important, it is about what the Kalamazoo Public Schools district has done in response to the introduction of the scholarship program four-and-a-half years ago. Against the tide of shrinking state funding for public education (thank you, farsighted Michigan State Legislature), and in a community where far too many children grow up poor, Kalamazoo has made a commitment to preparing every student for success in college. We have a long way to go (see future blog postings on the challenges we face in making the Promise a reality for everyone), but we are on our way. Thank you, Mr. President (and advisers) for recognizing our journey.

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