No money for college? One town's reply.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Bryan Whitmore, a senior at Kalamazoo Central High who has a talk-radio show and raps under the name "bry2fly," is planning to study broadcasting after graduation. He had found a scholarship that would help him pay for college, but "it wasn't a lot." His mom works at the Old Country Buffet and his dad, a former roofer, is on disability.

But Bryan's college plans just got a big boost. He's eligible for a new scholarship, available to the school district's graduates, that will cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for any public university or community college in Michigan. "I'm going to be the first one in my family to ... go to college," says the fourth of six siblings, who has a message for the donors: "Thanks for the scholarship, guys."

The Kalamazoo Promise is the gift of an anonymous group of donors. City officials believe it has the potential to revitalize this former manufacturing hub in southwest Michigan. And in the long term, they hope the program leads to a better-educated workforce and an increase in everything from public-school enrollment to housing prices.

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Kalamazoo is only the second US city, after Washington, to offer full-tuition scholarships to its graduates. "It's really a noble effort," says Edward St. John, coauthor of "Refinancing the College Dream" and an education professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It's a novel program with respect to promoting economic development and retaining the city's stature. There's a powerful incentive structure to keep more families committed to being in the public school system."

This city of 77,000, like many in Michigan, had grown accustomed to weathering tough economic news - from layoffs at Pfizer to projected increases in home heating bills of up to 71 percent. The area has been struggling to hold on to manufacturing jobs since the 1980s, when Checker cabs stopped rolling out of Kalamazoo. Some 62 percent of Kalamazoo's children in public schools qualify for federally subsidized lunches. But with the Promise, which was announced last week, parents have been given a bonus that today is worth up to $36,872.

"Right now, the immediacy of it is, we have hope. We can do what we dreamed of doing," says Superintendent Janice Brown of her students. "Kids that could not go to college and get a degree are going to have two-year and four-year degrees."

About a dozen states, including Michigan and Massachusetts, provide merit-based scholarships to academic achievers. But critics of those programs, including Professor St. John, say that the money ends up going to more affluent students who were college-bound anyway. For example, a 2002 study by Harvard University found that Georgia's HOPE scholarship program, the oldest in the country, increased access to college by only 4 percent. "Georgia's just been a dismal failure when it comes to college preparedness," says St. John.

Other states have followed the lead of Indiana, which adopted a need-based program that offers tuition to low-income students who sign a pledge to abstain from drugs and alcohol. In addition, private philanthropists, such as George Weiss, have singled out individual high schools for scholarship grants, and others, such as the Gates Foundation, follow a need-based model.

The Kalamazoo program differs in that it includes everyone. Time is the only factor in the amount a student receives: A child who enrolls as a kindergartner will receive 100 percent of his or her tuition and fees. A student who enrolls in ninth grade will receive 65 percent. (Once in college, students must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.)

St. John says the closest current US comparison is Washington, D.C., which offers full-tuition scholarships to all high school graduates, public and private, at any public university.

After the Promise was announced, the feeling of joy in Kalamazoo has been palpable. "We're really excited about it," says Linda Greer, a single mom whose eighth-grade daughter, Meghan, is a straight-A student. "We're thinking University of Michigan."

Still, Dr. Brown and others acknowledge that the community will need to step up to continue to improve the quality of education and to ensure that more minorities and economically disadvantaged students will be able to benefit from the Promise. Some 80 percent of students in Kalamazoo public schools graduate, as opposed to about 70 percent nationwide.

At a community celebration Tuesday for the Promise, Mayor Hannah McKinney said she would gather community leaders, school-board members, and other interested residents to discuss how to best support the new program. "We're one of the cities that urban experts have been debating for 10 years, whether we even have a future in ... the new economy. You know what the Promise shows? It shows we are the future," said Mayor McKinney. Noting that Kalamazoo's poverty rate is 25 percent, she says, "The wonderful part is it isn't a promise where you have to jump a huge barrier to achieve it. If you are willing to do the work, you can have as a bright a future as anyone."

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