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What if students got free college tuition? Study examines Kalamazoo Promise.

The Kalamazoo Promise offers free or substantially reduced tuition to high school grads. A new study shows what effect that has had.

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    A high school graduate raises his diploma in celebration as he walks back to his seat during a commencement ceremony, June 10, 2015.
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For 10 years, Kalamazoo, Mich., has been pioneering a remarkable experiment in public education: High school graduates get free or significantly reduced tuition to college.

On Thursday, the city got its first major look at what benefits that brings.

A new study suggests that the Kalamazoo Promise is boosting college enrollment and college success, with about one-third more students earning a post-secondary credential or degree within six years, many of them bachelor’s degrees.

The issue of college attendance and success rates is a priority not only for the Obama administration but also for struggling communities like Kalamazoo, which worry that they might be left behind as jobs of the future require higher levels of education.

The Promise outcomes are particularly encouraging for more than 30 communities around the country that have started scholarships like Kalamazoo’s – called place-based college scholarships. Kalamazoo still has a long way to go to tackle poverty and racial achievement gaps, but the community continues to rally around its students, boosting early childhood and after school programs in the hopes that even more families will be able to benefit from the Promise in the future.

“There’s this feeling in the community that it’s a tremendous gift and it’s our responsibility to make it work,” says Bob Jorth, executive director of Kalamazoo Promise. “More people are volunteering their time and treasure to support students to successfully access college and the Promise,” he says. And he often hears from scholarship recipients about how the gift has inspired them not only to attend college and pursue their dreams, but also “pay it forward” through public service.

How it works

More than 3,800 Kalamazoo students have attended college using about $66 million in scholarships since the class of 2006 first benefited from the Promise, funded by a group of anonymous donors. All Kalamazoo public high school graduates who enrolled in the district before the start of ninth grade qualify for 65 to 100 percent college tuition, depending on how long they’ve been students in Kalamazoo. They can use the money at any public postsecondary institution in the state, and, starting this year, at 15 private ones as well.

Other communities have since followed suit. Some are targeted at disadvantaged students or can only be used at local community colleges. But others are sweeping. In El Dorado, Ark., for example, high school graduates can attend any public or private college in the United States, though the scholarship is capped at the rate of the highest-priced state institution. 

Such programs help stabilize public school enrollment and can have a positive effect on housing prices, other research has shown. They can also reduce school disciplinary problems and increase students’ grade point averages. This week’s study was released by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo study compared Promise-eligible students with a group of students from before the Promise plus graduates who were not eligible because they had not enrolled in the system by ninth grade. The likelihood of enrolling in any college within six month of finishing high school goes up by about 14 percent with the Promise, while the likelihood of enrollment in four-year colleges goes up 34 percent.

About 48 percent of Promise students complete college or earn a postsecondary credential within six years of high school graduation, versus 36 percent of the comparison group.

The benefits cross racial and economic lines. For black students, the Promise group completed college at a rate of 23 percent, versus 16 percent of the non-eligible group; for whites, it was 43 percent versus 40 percent.

The Promise only addresses one of the barriers to college completion – financial – but the impact is significant, says Timothy Bartik, co-author of the study. It generates about $4 in benefits for every $1 invested, based on the lifetime earnings of students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college, the study found. Others have questioned whether the benefits are that dramatic.

One life changed

For LaTasha James, the benefits have been clear since the moment the Kalamazoo Promise was announced. Ms. James started in the Kalamazoo public schools in Kindergarten. She did well and enjoyed school, but her single mom had never attended college and didn’t push her towards it.

“I never really thought very seriously about college, to be honest,” she says. She thought she’d be more likely to go to cosmetology school or maybe community college. She didn’t think she’d be able to afford much else.

The Promise came along when she was a freshman in high school. “It definitely changed high school and how seriously I took it,” James says. While still in high school, she enrolled in local college classes and a program that let her try out filmmaking, which she would eventually major in at college. “I wouldn’t have reached for those extra things if I had not known I was going to college afterwards.”

This spring, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She had started at community college and took time off to work full time in retail. “Even with the Promise it was hard for me to go back [to school] and work part time,” she says. Students are given 10 years from the time they finish high school to use their scholarship.

Now, James will be able to put her media skills to work in a new job she’s starting Monday at General Motors in Detroit. If she has children in the future, she says, she’d seriously consider moving back to Kalamazoo for “this amazing bonus of free tuition.”

But she knows others who have found completing college to be a struggle, despite the scholarship. “The Promise is an awesome jumping off point … but there’s still work to be done, for sure,” she says. The public schools and families in Kalamazoo need to continue to boost that college-going culture and the supports students need to get all the way through to a degree, she says.

Others agree. In order to truly improve social mobility, Kalamazoo and other communities “need to improve economic stability for families and improve access to well-paying jobs,” and “not rely solely on the education sector as a driver for change,” says Timothy Ready, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University.

Fortunately, Professor Ready says, Kalamazoo officials recognize that need. They’ve been working to boost early childhood education to better prepare students for academic success. And they recently launched Shared Prosperity, a community collaborative to address barriers for people seeking good work, ranging from child care and transportation needs to problems faced by job-seekers with criminal records.

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