Make college cheaper, and more people earn degrees.
It’s simple, intuitive, and could have major policy implications for Michigan.
A 55-page report released this morning by the Upjohn Institute documents for the first time that students eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise – a scholarship program offering free college to Kalamazoo Public Schools high school graduates – earned degrees at a significantly higher clip than Kalamazoo kids prior to the Promise.
While the study looks only at the impact of that city’s nationally renowned scholarship program on college completion, the results hold encouragement for more than a dozen similar programs in Michigan. They also offer fodder for policymakers in Lansing fighting to make college more affordable in a state that can use more college graduates.
Beyond the financial help such programs provide, proponents of the Promise program say the scholarship is creating a broader college-going culture in Kalamazoo, with capable students from low-income families opening their minds to ambitions they may not have previously considered.
Michigan ranks 37th in the percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Getting more high school grads onto campuses is key to the state’s economy, which is fueled more and more by workers with postsecondary credentials.
Getting kids in college is a particular problem in Michigan’s cities, where low- and moderate-income students enroll in – and complete – college at far lower rates than their wealthier peers.
The Kalamazoo Promise, funded by anonymous donors, was meant to be a game-changer. But until today, no one knew just how much the game had changed.
Previous reports had indicated that the program had increased college enrollment, but data hadn’t been analyzed to determine if those kids who in the past wouldn’t have enrolled in college were actually graduating. Today’s report, released in advance to Bridge Magazine and MLive, is the first study to show conclusively that students eligible for Promise scholarships earned college degrees at a meaningfully higher rate than Kalamazoo kids who graduated high school before the Promise program launched in 2005.
“What this says is, we have dramatically increased opportunities for our kids and our labor market,” said an elated Janice Brown, the former Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent who worked with donors to create the Kalamazoo Promise a decade ago. Brown subsequently directed the Kalamazoo Promise, and now consults with communities around the nation trying to establish similar scholarship programs. “This is affirmation of all we’ve done.”
From the beginning, there were questions about whether some Promise students, particularly low-income students, would struggle to acclimate and eventually graduate from college, even if they performed well in high school. The fears were not unfounded.
“There was a question of whether we were just sending a bunch of kids off to college to fail,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a researcher at UpJohn in Kalamazoo who studies Promise programs around the country, but who was not an author of this study. “But what the data shows is there’s obviously a group of students who were prepared to be successful but weren’t going to four-year colleges.”
While similar programs have sprung up around the country, no state has as many place-based Promise programs as Michigan, with at least 16 operated in the state.
Some programs only offer aid to targeted groups of students (low-income or high-achieving); some limit support to local community colleges or a limited number of nearby universities. None offer as much tuition assistance as Kalamazoo.
The Kalamazoo Promise offers free or reduced tuition to all Kalamazoo graduates who attended the city’s public school district at least through high school, with that aid available to use at community colleges or public universities across the state (Students still pay for room and board, though in reality, most of the students, because they are low-income, receive federal or institutional grants to cover expenses not covered by the Promise).
By comparison, the Hazel Park promise program offers $2,000 for two years; the Battle Creek Promise offers tuition only to Kellogg Community College; and the Muskegon Area Promise will be available only to students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
Tim Bartik, senior economist for the W.E. Upjohn Institute, an employment research think tank, and one of the authors of the Kalamazoo Promise study, said he doesn’t know if the more limited Promise programs will have the same impact as Kalamazoo’s.
“Once you start making the program less generous and more complicated and more targeted, it’s not clear that you get anywhere near the same effect,” Bartik said. “I don’t think we know what the threshold effect is.”
The Upjohn study shows that “simple, generous programs can move the needle,” Bartik said. “They’re expensive, but you also get a very big bang for your buck.”
So far, the anonymous donors to the Kalamazoo Promise have spent $66 million on tuition. Before the Promise, 30 percent of Kalamazoo high school graduates earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of leaving high school; now that figure is 40 percent.
Over a lifetime, a worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn on average $1 million more than a worker with a high school diploma, according to a U.S. Census study.
“What this report does is answer the question we’ve been asked for almost 10 years now, which is: What’s the economic impact and return on investment,” said Brown, the former Kalamazoo Promise director. “We’ve been steadfast in saying we don’t know yet.”
More broadly, the study adds support for notion that the state itself look for ways to reduce (or even eliminate) tuition for in-state high school graduates as a down payment in Michigan’s future, Brown said. “If I’m a policymaker in Lansing and I need to invest my limited dollars in an initiative that pays dividends, I now know that paying for college has huge dividends for my state.”
Miller-Adams sees a similar lesson for lawmakers in the pages of the study: “College is unaffordable for a lot of students who are otherwise prepared to be successful,” she said. “If you take that financial situation away, more will go to college.”
Tennessee, which has had similar struggles with college attainment, recently began offering free community college to high school graduates in the state. Even more ambitiously, President Obama made a pitch in January to make community college free nationwide.
Bartik said he doesn’t know if a similar, publicly financed community college program would work in Michigan, or if it would shift students who could succeed in a four-year university into two-year community college programs.
What Bartik said he does know, though, is something that is a tough sell in Lansing: Money can make a difference.
“Can you squeeze some initiatives in this area out of the budget?” Bartik asked. “The state needs to think about how to invest in its future workforce.”
Michigan’s college attainment problem won’t be solved with money alone, said Chuck Wilbur, education advisor to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm when Granholm created “Promise Zones” in 10 low-income communities around the state. In those zones, public-private partnerships work to raise money to kick-start Promise scholarship programs with the programs eventually qualifying for tax increments to fund more scholarships.
The success or failure of the state’s smaller Promise programs will depend less on wealthy donors, than on communities rallying around the expectation of higher education, Wilbur said.
“We took the approach in the Promise Zones that even if we start small that it was worth doing. There’s so much of this that has to go on beyond writing a check for tuition,” Wilbur said. “The hard stuff is hearts and minds, creating a college-going culture in communities.
“We’re not in the scholarship business,” Wilbur said. “We’re in the community transformation business.”
That’s something LaTasha James knows personally. James, 24, of Kalamazoo, doesn’t know if she would have gone to college without the Kalamazoo Promise. She recalled that at first she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea.
“I think at first everybody was really confused about it, didn’t know if it was real or how it worked. I think there was a little disbelief, like it didn’t sound realistic,” said James, who graduated from Loy Norrix High in Kalamazoo in 2009.
She always knew she wanted to go to college, but didn’t see a path. The daughter of a single mom who works in food service, she said college cost too much for her family to afford. And while she was always a good student, she didn’t think she was smart enough to win scholarship money to cover the bills.
Once the school district made clear that the Promise scholarship was real money, James’ life changed, she said. Her mom, who never attended college, talked to LaTasha about the many opportunities the free money would open up for her.
So, they started researching colleges a little more seriously. And James took her first film class in high school to figure out if that would be a subject she could study in college.
Luckily, the Promise gives students a 10-year period to use the money.
After high school, James attended Kalamazoo Valley Community College for a semester then took some time off to work and figure out her next moves.
She earned an associate’s degree in communications from KVCC, then transferred to Western Michigan University. James graduated in the spring from Western with a bachelor's degree in film, video and media studies, six years after graduating high school.
She said she understands why the number of students who take advantage of the scholarship is perhaps not as high as some would expect. But attitudes are changing in Kalamazoo, and will change more with time, James said.
“It’s about changing the culture in Kalamazoo and getting us to be more of a college-going culture,” said James, 24. “My mom didn’t go to college. She helped me and encouraged me, but doesn’t understand the little processes like filling out (financial aid forms). I had to figure that out on my own.
“There’s little steps we need to take.”
Bridge writer Chastity Pratt Dawsey contributed to this article.