The Kalamazoo Promise was announced in November of 2005 after a group of anonymous donors pledged to cover the cost of tuition and fees at any one of Michigan’s 44 public colleges and universities for students graduating from the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) district.
The Kalamazoo Promise quickly became one of America’s most robust and inclusive Promise Programs as there where no restrictions based on financial need or field of study. Enrolled postsecondary students must keep a minimum 2.0 GPA per enrollment period to maintain eligibility.
The program aimed to incentivize student enrollment in local K-12 schools from an early age, increase college success for all students, and develop a more skilled local workforce. Students who attend KPS starting in kindergarten are eligible for a scholarship that covers full tuition and mandatory fees for all four years of college while students who enter the KPS system in 9th grade may receive a scholarship covering 65 percent of the cost. Those who enter the system at some point in between receive a scholarship based on a sliding scale. The Kalamazoo Promise has provided $61 million of tuition assistance through 2014. Current spending is approximately $10 to $11 million per year to support the approximately 1,400 KPS graduates using the Promise.
A recent study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and the first major study to observe the effects of Promise Programs, found that The Kalamazoo Promise “significantly” helped increase college enrollment, college completion rates, and had substantial economic benefits. Students were one-third more likely to enroll in a four-year college and complete a post-secondary degree. As a result, 48% of Promise-eligible students earned some type of postsecondary credential and 40% of them earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation. While the Promise requires about $11 million per year to fund the scholarships, the Upjohn study estimated the students earnings would increase $4.60 more for each dollar provided to them, creating a very positive ROI for the community. Low-income and minority students saw some of the greatest increases in enrollment and success. The Promise Program has not only produced significant economic benefits, it has help rebuild the latter of economic mobility for the most marginalized.
The Kalamazoo Promise has also produced tremendous benefits for the city of Kalamazoo and the state of Michigan. In the 20 years before the Promise Program was implemented, Kalamazoo was experiencing steady population decline that totaled 20% in 20 years, stagnating wages, and high employment. The Kalamazoo Promise is helping steer the city in a new direction. In the years immediately following the implementation of the program, enrollment of local students in Kalamazoo Public Schools increased, housing values faired better than almost anywhere else in the state, wages and salary employment were the best of the 14 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in Michigan, and the population even began to increase.
Today, almost a decade later, The Kalamazoo Promise remains fully active and widely regarded as a success, not just because it has actively increased college enrollment and completion rates for students of all backgrounds but also because it has helped revitalize a community that had been struggling for a long time. Furthermore, it pioneered the way for Promise programs across the country, helping to inspire, influence, and shape over 30 community based Promise programs. The Kalamazoo Promise proves that Promise programs provide a viable path to improve college success, increase economic mobility, and develop local economies.
By George Markarian. Mr. Markarian graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Public Policy from University of California, Berkeley. He currently works for CFCT as its Policy Coordinator.
 Beginning with the high school class of 2015, KPS graduates can also use the Promise at 15 Michigan private colleges. For these colleges, the Promise will pay up to the tuition and fees of the University of Michigan, the most expensive public college; the private colleges themselves will pay the remaining tuition costs (Mack 2014).
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