Alex Plair II, 18, of Kalamazoo, a sophomore at Western Michigan University, was among the first students to benefit from The Kalamazoo Promise, an anonymously funded free-tuition program for graduates of the district’s high schools.
AP Photo/Shawano Cleary
Is the promise of a college scholarship enough to motivate
students to study harder, convince parents to choose a particular school or
bring business to a community?
To varying degrees, that is what Michigan schools and
communities will find out in the next year as they launch their own college
tuition programs in the wake of the Kalamazoo Promise. Organizers of the
original Promise, which offers to pay up to four years of tuition to eligible
Kalamazoo Public Schools students, say it has boosted enrollment, raised
graduation rates and brought new residents to the Kalamazoo area.
At least one researcher said, however, it is too early to
tell whether the program will achieve its broader goal of revitalizing
Kalamazoo’s urban core. In the meantime, other schools, school districts and
communities are putting eggs into similar baskets. Some are in the talking
stage, while others have announced formal programs. For example:
— Carrollton Public Schools in Saginaw County has set aside
$14,400 in the general fund budget to purchase 40 contracts through the Michigan
Education Trust on behalf of this year’s kindergarten and preschool students.
When those students graduate, eligible members will receive financial awards
equaling one year of tuition at a community college.
— In Northport, at the tip of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula,
community organizers launched a college tuition program to maintain enrollment
and keep the local high school open. They plan to raise money through private
donations and community fundraisers.
— Kalamazoo Advantage Academy, a public charter school in
downtown Kalamazoo, has responded to the Kalamazoo Promise by offering its own
tuition program. The Gift for Tomorrow was announced this summer.
— Bay City Public Schools will pay part of the administrative
costs for Bay Commitment, a 100-scholarship program launched jointly with the
Bay Area Community Foundation aimed primarily at students who might not
otherwise attend college.
A visiting scholar at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo
said she is not surprised that other communities are taking up the idea of
Promise programs, but also cautioned that while it’s clear that the Kalamazoo
program resulted in higher enrollment, it is not clear yet how much and what
type of effect there has been on the housing or business markets in the city
"It’s been great for the kids … and good for the district. It
looks like it’s had an effect curtailing the dropout rate," Michelle
Miller-Adams said. But she called the economic development effect on Kalamazoo’s
urban center "less clear," and something that will take more time to evaluate.
Miller-Adams is completing research on the Promise that will
lead to a book explaining the program’s origin and its economic, social and
educational effects. Launched in 2005, the Promise made national headlines when
organizers announced that anonymous, private donors would pay for college
tuition for every eligible KPS graduate. So far the program has been credited
with increasing enrollment by more than 1,000 students.
KALAMAZOO CHARTER RESPONDS
While Promise organizers describe the program as an effort to
revitalize the Kalamazoo area, creating an educated workforce that will attract
business, the tuition incentive also has had the effect of keeping students —
and the state aid that follows them — in the Kalamazoo Public Schools system.
The longer a student attends Kalamazoo Public Schools, the higher the award.
Students must reside in the district; they may not enroll through schools of
choice programs. At about $5,500 in state aid per general-education pupil last
year and $7,500 in state aid per special-education pupil, increased enrollment
of 1,000 adds at least $5,500,000 million to the district’s budget.
That incentive took a toll at Kalamazoo Advantage Academy, a
public charter school in downtown Kalamazoo, which said about 70 of its students
transferred to Kalamazoo Public Schools because of the tuition offer. In
response, the academy has announced its own Gift for Tomorrow, which will pay up
to 35 percent of the cost of college tuition and fees to students who leave the
academy after eighth grade and go on to graduate from any Kalamazoo public high
school. The academy does not have its own high school program.
In effect, the Gift for Tomorrow takes away the financial
incentive to switch schools. By combining the Gift benefits with the Promise
benefits, a student would receive the same amount of tuition assistance that he
or she would receive from attending Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten
through 12th grade.
NORTHPORT PROGRAM AIMED AT KEEPING HIGH SCHOOL OPEN
In northern Michigan, private money also will pay for the
Northport Promise, but that money is not already in the bank. Steering committee
members say they will have to raise thousands of dollars for a scholarship
program that they hope will attract enough students to keep the local high
With its entire K-12 operation housed in one building near
the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, Northport Public Schools has approximately 75
students enrolled in seventh through 12th grade this year, including a senior
class of 12. That number has declined in recent years, and when enrollment
projections predicted even fewer students in the future, the local board of
education discussed the possibility of eliminating the high school program.
"How small do you get before you lose opportunities for
kids?" Superintendent Ty Wessell said, describing the situation to Michigan
Education Report. Low enrollment makes it hard to offer choir or band programs,
he said as an example, as well as specialized academic classes that might only
attract a handful of students.
"The board looked at all sorts of options last year," Wessell
said, but eventually agreed to keep the high school program operating in part
because community members agreed to launch the Promise.
The idea is not to turn Northport into a larger district, he
said, but to keep enrollment stable.
"I think we can do a very strong program with 75 students,"
he said. The district already offers some classes online through the Michigan
Virtual High School, and is discussing the possibility of guest student programs
or distance learning with other districts.
Sally Viskochil, chairwoman of the Northport Promise steering
committee, attributes the enrollment decline over the years to loss of jobs from
the closing of the local hospital and controversy over a sewer issue. Housing
development in the peninsula tends to attract retirees and people who can afford
waterfront vacation homes, she said, not young families. While that helps the
local tax base — Northport is one Michigan district that takes in more money
from non-homestead property tax than from state aid — it doesn’t help school
"My motivation is to keep the school open and functioning,"
Viskochil said. She said she believes that closing the high school program would
lead eventually to closing the entire operation. "You’d lose the whole school
and by losing a school you lose the heart of a community."
It’s too early to tell if the Promise already has had an
impact, Wessell said, but it has generated a number of inquiries.
CARROLLTON BUYS EDUCATION TRUSTS
While Northport hopes to hand out scholarships as early as
2008, Carrollton Public Schools is taking a long-term approach. The board of
education will set aside $14,400 in each of the next 10 years to pay for 40
trusts on behalf of this year’s kindergarten and preschool students. The money
will be invested through the Michigan Education Trust, a prepaid college tuition
plan administered by the state Department of Treasury. At graduation, eligible
students will receive enough for a year of community college tuition, according
to Carrollton Superintendent Craig C. Douglas.
"I’m going to call it a pilot program," Douglas told Michigan
Education Report. "The outcome is potentially powerful."
Douglas’ interest in paying for college is personal and
professional. In addition to being a public school superintendent, he sits on
the board of the Michigan Higher Education Assistance Authority and he also is
the father of three college graduates.
To be eligible for Carrollton’s program, a student must
remain enrolled in Carrollton schools from preschool or kindergarten through
12th grade, have consistent attendance, meet academic requirements and graduate.
That includes maintaining a 3.0 grade point average in high school and meeting
or exceeding state requirements on standardized tests throughout elementary and
middle school, Douglas said. The offer is open to residents of the Carrollton
district and to non-residents who enroll through the schools-of-choice program.
"We want them to make a commitment to the school," Douglas
That includes parents, who must attend all parent/teacher
conferences as well as two extra parent meetings each year. They also must
volunteer for at least one school activity.
"The parent is the primary teacher. Always has been, always
will be," Douglas said. "Now we’ve got the carrot to bring the parents to the
The district expects the program will pay for itself by
keeping students in Carrollton schools and attracting newcomers. Every student
brings in approximately $7,000 in state aid.
"The brilliant piece of this, in my mind, is that the state
allows you to put away a little at a time," he said. "You don’t need someone to
roll up in a Brinks truck."
The MET program has always been available to school
districts, according to treasury department spokesman Terry Stanton, but this
year new rules allow districts to buy the trusts without naming individual
beneficiaries at the time of purchase.
"We expect that will make it a little more popular," he said.
BAY COMMITMENT TAKES ALL-LOCAL APPROACH
Taking a more focused approach, Bay City Public Schools and
the Bay Area Community Foundation have announced Bay Commitment, a two-year
pilot scholarship program targeted at students who have been enrolled in the
district long-term and meet academic criteria, but who might not otherwise go to
college. The recipients are expected to include a number of
"first-in-the-family" college enrollees. One hundred scholarships, for up to
$2,000 each, will be awarded to Bay City Public Schools graduates beginning in
2008. The money must be spent at nearby Saginaw Valley State University or Delta
While the school district will not fund the scholarships, it
will pay approximately half the administrative cost to establish a College
Preparation Services department, which will match students to scholarships, help
families make college plans and help with the transition to college. The school
district’s share will be about $50,000, according to Superintendent Carolyn
The foundation and other philanthropic groups will pay for
the rest of the administrative costs and will raise money for an endowment to
finance the scholarships. The emphasis is deliberately local, Wierda said, in
the hopes that students who grew up in Bay City and who attend a local college
will stay in the area to build a skilled, local workforce.
SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAMS NOT A GUARANTEE
In Kalamazoo, Upjohn researcher Miller-Adams said a
scholarship program may give a school district an edge, but it’s no guarantee of
enrollment. Parents consider many variables in choosing schools, among them
size, safety, religious affiliation, test scores and programs offered, she said.
As of the fall of 2006, for example, Kalamazoo Public Schools scored lower than
the five surrounding conventional public school districts on math and reading
scores in all grade levels on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. In
some cases the difference in scores was less than 10 percentage points, but in
others it was as high as 35. The Upjohn Institute will track MEAP scores and
other academic markers as part of its research.
It appears the Promise holds the most appeal for students who
likely would not go to college otherwise, either for lack of funding or because
they lack role models or other support systems, Miller-Adams said.
"If you’re in the (college education) market anyway, the
Promise was a draw, but only a draw," she said. "There’s a lot of scholarship
money out there."
The economy plays a role in school choice, too, she added. "It’s not like
people are flooding in here," she said. "Nobody is going to move somewhere
without a job."