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Opinion | Michigan continues to pioneer in tuition-free ‘Promise’ programs

The national free-college movement convened this fall in Detroit, bringing hundreds of education change-makers from around the country to Michigan, the movement’s birthplace. PromiseNet is a network of communities built over the past 15 years inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise, the first modern scholarship program based on graduation from a particular high school or school district.  

While the Biden Administration’s proposed tuition-free community college program languishes in Washington, state and local efforts, jump started here in Michigan, keep growing.

John Austin and Michelle Miller-Adams headshots
John C. Austin is a Nonresident Fellow with the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a Research Fellow with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and a professor at Grand Valley State University.

The place-based scholarship (or “Promise”) model is only the latest educational innovation with roots in Michigan. For more than two centuries, Michigan has been a pioneer in creating public high schools, public universities, community colleges, and community education. These institutions have brought high-quality, low-cost education to more Michigan residents. They’ve boosted the economy and enriched community life. 

Just as these educational innovations spoke to the needs of their times, the Kalamazoo Promise provided an elegant solution to the challenges of the present. How does an urban community reverse a steady loss of families, talent, and tax base? How do policymakers help more students realize a sorely needed postsecondary education — a prerequisite for many family-sustaining jobs? How do communities show they are committed to higher education and cultivating the human capital of their residents? 

The Kalamazoo Promise offered answers to these questions. Beginning in 2006, funding by anonymous donors, the program allowed almost every graduate of the Kalamazoo Public Schools to attend a post-secondary institution in Michigan tuition free, bringing about an increase in college-going and degree or certificate completion. 

This place-based scholarship model rapidly spread to dozens of communities. Today over 200 communities have launched their own Promise programs, many of which offer a more modest guarantee than the Kalamazoo Promise (by, for example, including only community colleges and not bachelor’s-degree-granting institutions). 

In addition, about half the states have initiated some form of college financial guarantee, Tens of thousands of students have moved through these programs to find richer (in all ways) lives in their communities.  

Michigan has been at the center of these efforts. The state now has 23 local Promise programs, 13 of which are part of the innovative Michigan Promise Zones. The Promise Zones were created under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2009 to replicate the Kalamazoo Promise without the benefit of anonymous benefactors, relying instead on local philanthropy, federal student aid and a “tax capture” mechanism that sends a portion of the growth of the state’s education tax to Promise Zone communities. 

The number of zones was expanded under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, underscoring the bipartisan appeal of tuition-free college. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, again with bipartisan legislative support, has further expanded access to higher education in Michigan through two programs. Michigan Reconnect provides a tuition-free path through community college for adults without college degrees, while the Michigan Achievement scholarship provides substantial additional financial resources to most Michigan families. 

Promise programs are built on a simple idea: A tuition-free path to higher education provides new opportunities for young people and enhances the attractiveness and vitality of a community.  

But designing an effective Promise program is not so simple. Research and practice have shown that it is not enough to offer a financial guarantee. To help students succeed, programs must support them at key moments along the way. 

Students, especially first-generation or low-income students, often need personalized support to make the transition from high school into the right post-secondary setting, to navigate college life once enrolled, and to transition from degree or certificate programs into the workforce. Much of the innovation in the Promise movement in recent years — and much of the discussion at PromiseNet 2023 — has focused on how these supports, designed largely to promote progression and completion among first-generation and low-income college-goers can be best organized and delivered.  

Promise stakeholders are still innovating. The hottest topics of conversation for the 200+ participants at the conference — many of them first-time attendees — were how to solve new challenges: A demographic decline in K-12 populations and college enrollments, pandemic-related learning loss, a tight labor market where college-going competes with higher entry-level wages, changes in the cost of living, and a new anti-college backlash.  

Promise programs are adapting their structure and services to address these obstacles because, even in a time of profound change and uncertainty, a few things remain clear. Higher education opens doors to better-paying jobs — jobs that can improve lives for individual graduates, their families and the wider society. 

States and communities that provide a clear and affordable pathway to post-secondary education lay the groundwork for healthier communities and stronger economies. In all these areas, Michigan can be rightly proud to be an educational pioneer. 

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