Five years before that, the city had suffered the loss of thousands of transportation manufacturing jobs and the downsizing of drug manufacturer Pfizer, which has its largest global manufacturing plant in Kalamazoo County. On top of that, only 70 percent of high school graduates in the struggling urban school district were enrolling in higher education, with fewer than that attending in the fall. Approximately 25 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, and nearly 50 percent of Kalamazoo students received free and reduced lunches.
Superintendent Janice Brown had a solution — a free college education for everyone in her school district. To do that, she needed anonymous donors to foot the bill: she estimated approximately $12 million a year to start.
“Education is the key to economic development, and it’s the key to investing universally for Kalamazoo,” she said. “We’re changing the culture of this community. We’re changing the culture of poverty. We’re changing the education climate, and it’s a long-term investment.”
The Kalamazoo Promise was unveiled at a Nov. 10, 2005, Kalamazoo Board of Education meeting and is viewed as an economic development tool for the city. The tuition benefit is based on length of attendance in the Kalamazoo Public School (KPS) system. The scholarship covers up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at any Michigan public college or university if the student attended a KPS school from kindergarten to graduation.
Students get the benefit regardless of their high school grades, but they must maintain a 2.0 grade point average in college or lose the scholarship for at least a semester until they get their grades back on track. They have 10 years from the time they graduate from high school to use their benefits, and can start and stop at any time.
“The Kalamazoo Promise is scheduled to continue in perpetuity, so this isn’t going anywhere,” Brown said. “We are going to lift up our children so they have successful experiences and careers without the fear that they might fall behind.”
In the program’s first year, KPS saw nearly 1,000 new students from 30 states and 65 Michigan communities, a 10 percent jump. That spike in enrollment created more than 30 teaching positions in the school district. Since then, 95 percent of students who graduate from KPS are enrolling in and attending college, test scores are trending up, the number of Advanced Placement students has doubled in the past three years, and more students who fail to graduate on time are staying in school to get their diplomas. The dropout rate — students no longer in school when their class graduates — declined from 21 percent for the class of 2007 to 14.5 percent for the class of 2009.
“We’re promoting education, and we’re promoting success,” Brown said. “While the Promise scholarship is for a bachelor’s degree or 130 credits, whichever comes first, many students are using the money they had saved for that degree to now attend graduate school. We’ve made more than just a bachelor’s degree a part of these children’s futures.”
The program plans to reach $40 million in donations this year. The next step is improving the preparation and support for first-generation college students who are more likely to start at community college and to drop out — data at the end of last year showed that of the 603 students who graduated from KPS between 2006 and 2008 and went on to community college, only 8 percent have earned degrees or certificates, and two-thirds have dropped out.
“We have a community that’s heavily engaged and heavily invested in outcomes associated with learning,” Brown said. “We’ve made some strong strides, but we’re not there yet.”