Imagine going to your next Board of Ed meeting and being told that your child can go to college for free. Yes, a full-ride for four years. That’s exactly what happened on November 10, 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A group of anonymous donors pledged to pay 100% of tuition at any of Michigan’s 15 state colleges/universities (including University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo) for graduates of the city’s public high schools. For any kid who’d been in the public school system since kindergarten, 100% is covered. Even for a student who came from elsewhere, arriving only in time to spend four years in public high school, at least 65% of college tuition is covered. Since inception, the “Kalamazoo Promise” has paid out $18 million in tuition for about 2,000 high school graduates. So far, a total of 60 Promise-funded students had obtained bachelor’s degrees (many are still at work; there is a ten-year period in which to use the scholarship to complete a degree).
But while the stirring Kalamazoo Promise has inspired other cities to make similar pledges (Denver, Detroit, New Haven, Pittsburgh) and continues to boost local economic development (enrollment in the Kalamazoo school district had grown by 16% to 12,409 as of 2011), half of the Promise-funded students have dropped out of college before finishing degrees or certificates, despite the free ride. The organization has proven financially sound and remarkably generous but unprepared for a kind of failure no one expected. KP is now scrambling to figure out a way to provide support for low-income and first-generation college students who are more likely to drop out, because they are academically unprepared and/or because they lack the support system that middle-class and affluent college students are apt to have. Although housing is cheap in Kalamazoo (costs are one-third below the national average, provoking Kiplinger’s Personal Finance to add it to their list of “Ten Best Cities for Cheapskates”), nearly 14% of Kalamazooan families live below the poverty line ($22,133 annual income for a family group of four, including two children). In-state, freshman tuition at Michigan State is $12,674. Campus housing, which is not included in the Promise, is $8,526. The goal is for these kids to get degrees and lift themselves and their communities. Ideas?