Maintaining high enrollment levels to ensure adequate state funding can be a challenge for many school districts. So school administrators and superintendents across the country are likely to closely follow the Kalamazoo Promise project.
The Kalamazoo, Michigan school district, which enrolled more than 5,000 students in 2005, instituted a program last year that provides the majority of its high school graduates with four-year scholarships to a state-based university, thanks to an anonymous donor.
Kalamazoo Public Schools graduated 453 students last spring, excluding exchange students and others who received special degrees. Of those, 382 were eligible for “The Promise,” which pays up to 100 percent of tuition at any state-funded university or community college for graduates who live in and have attended district schools since at least ninth grade.
The Class of 2006 comprised the program’s first recipients.
Private funding from anonymous donors will allow recipients up to 10 years to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Funding through the Kalamazoo Promise is available until a student earns a bachelor’s degree or 130 credit hours, or until the 10-year time limit runs out.
To remain eligible, students must attend the university full-time during the semesters they are receiving Promise funds, and they must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average.
Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Janice Brown said during a November 2005 school board meeting, “There is no doubt in my mind that this will spur housing sales, attract new business development, and add to an already solid quality of life in Kalamazoo. I believe we are the first and only school system in the nation where all resident graduates are promised funding for college through a private donation.”
Brown’s comments were prescient. The Promise is so popular that some families are moving to Kalamazoo from outside the district so their children can receive full scholarships. Sheree Walker found it so attractive she recently moved back to her hometown of Kalamazoo from Atlanta with her husband and 5-year-old son.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Walker told the Kalamazoo Gazette in early August.
Kalamazoo Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Gary Start estimated 450 more students would attend schools in the district this year than in fall 2005, three months before the Kalamazoo Promise was announced.
Based on how Michigan’s school districts receive state funding, those new students would raise the state’s contribution by nearly $3.5 million. For each new student, the state gives a district $7,556. Under Michigan law, which allows students to attend schools in the districts neighboring their own for a set annual fee, Kalamazoo stands to draw even more.
“We have seen a large increase in new students, which no question is due in part to the Promise,” said Start. “But the increased funding we receive will also help us to significantly improve the services our school offers.”
A further potential benefit of the plan is that more students and better schools will increase the number of graduates that go on to college. But even if the majority of high school seniors want to go to college, they still have to get into those schools.
“College isn’t a privilege anymore, it’s really a necessity,” said Debbie Hedges, whose 7-year-old daughter attends first grade in the Kalamazoo school district. “This might be a way to help my daughter and other kids become motivated about going to college.”
For The Promise to succeed, experts agree, parents will have to do their part by providing support and encouragement. A survey released last fall by the Michigan Education Association and a coalition of other education groups found young adults whose parents “insisted” on their college attendance were twice as likely to pursue higher education as those whose parents merely “suggested” it.
Mike Scott ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in White Lake, Michigan.