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The Upjohn Institute plays a leading role in research, evaluation, and community mobilization activities surrounding the Kalamazoo Promise, an unprecedented experiment in community development that guarantees full college scholarships to potentially every graduate of the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS).
Announced in November 2005 and funded by a group of anonymous donors, the Kalamazoo Promise is the first of a growing number of Promise-type programs nationwide. The defining features of the Kalamazoo Promise include the following five:
These key features of the Kalamazoo Promise make the scholarship program an especially powerful tool for community transformation. With a deep pool of scholarship resources acting as a catalyst, diverse individuals and organizations have responded in ways that are positive for Kalamazoo's economy, social fabric, and human capital.
One of the most important impacts of the Promise has been to reverse the school district's decades-long slide in enrollment. Between 2005 and 2010, enrollment in the Kalamazoo Public Schools grew by 20 percent, bringing new financial resources into the district and leading to the construction of two new schools—the first schools to be opened in Kalamazoo in almost 40 years. The Promise has also intensified efforts by KPS to create a strong college-going culture that reaches every student in the K12 system. One indicator of success has been a dramatic increase in the number of students (including minority and economically disadvantaged students) who are taking Advanced Placement courses.
Beyond its impact on human capital and the educational system, the Kalamazoo Promise is envisioned as a catalyst for economic growth and development for Kalamazoo's urban core and the larger region. By creating incentives for current residents to remain in the district and for new residents (especially those with children) to move in, the scholarship program is expected eventually to bring about a tightening in the slack housing market and higher property values. The Promise also makes the community more attractive for businesses seeking to invest, expand, or relocate: not only will their employees' children have access to free college tuition, but the businesses themselves will be able to tap an increasingly well-trained workforce (provided that college graduates or newly skilled workers opt to stay in the region). The program fits readily into a regional growth strategy that seeks to position the Kalamazoo area as a leader in the life sciences field and a home to high-value-added, high-wage service jobs.
The chief lesson of the Kalamazoo Promise's first five years is that the program holds the potential to transform the community in fundamental ways, but that such a transformation requires a high level of community engagement and alignment. It has taken several years for leaders and residents to recognize this reality and organize their efforts, and Kalamazoo is now embarking on what is likely to prove a remarkable period of innovation in community collaboration.
Adapted from A Simple Gift? The Impact of the Kalamazoo Promise on Economic Revitalization, W.E. Upjohn Institute, 2006; revised and updated by Michelle Miller-Adams, 2011.