Kalamazoo Tweaking Its Innovative Free College Program
In 2005 several anonymous donors in Kalamazoo, Michigan funded a scholarship program designed to pay for an entire college education for certain graduates of the city’s public-school system. The program, known as the Kalamazoo Promise, has helped over 6,200 students graduate with completely free bachelor’s degree from a Michigan college. About 200 other similar programs around the country have sprouted since, inspired by this groundbreaking program.
The program still has more work to do. As the Promise continues to gather information about it how students are doing, it has established an arm that is working to help high school grads in their 20s get back to school. The program would like to see more of the city’s disadvantaged students finish a post-high-school degree.
The Promise discovered that not everyone will pursue a college degree just because its free. Removing the financial barrier to college helps, but it is not the only barrier to a college degree that these students face.
“After looking at the data, we said, ‘Man, we’ve got to take look at having a more hands-on approach to help students commit,’” says Von Washington, the Promise’s executive director for community relations.
The program offers 100 percent scholarships to students who spent their entire 12 years of basic education in the Kalamazoo public school system, and 65 percent for those who completed four years of high school there.
The tuition can be used at any of the state’s 15 public universities and 30 community colleges. It also can be used at any of Michigan’s 15 private colleges, including the state’s highest-ranking private school, Kalamazoo College. Since it was founded the Promise has awarded about 6,200 students $126 million out of the 7,600-total number of high school graduates since 2006.
But in many cases the money is not enough to get and/or keep many students in school. The Promise realized that some students need continuing guidance. In 2017 the program expanded its staff and begin looking for ways to improve the rates of graduation.
“Students who have started on scholarship but are no longer going, we’re trying to find them, talk to them, ask them what the barriers are,” Washington says.
When they do reach the students that dropped out, they find obstacles to study things like struggles with housing, transportation, food issues and childcare. The program has “promise pathway coaches” who are there to supplement the work of guidance counselors in high schools, helping the students overcome these challenges.