The Upjohn Institute plays a leading role in research, evaluation, and data collection 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:
Every graduate of KPS is eligible for a Promise scholarship provided he or she has been enrolled in and resided within the district for a minimum of four years. For students who have attended and resided in KPS for their entire K—12 education, the program covers full tuition and fees at over 60 public and private colleges, universities, apprenticeships, and trade programs in Michigan. For students who have attended KPS since ninth grade, the program covers 65 percent of tuition and fees. A sliding scale based on the length of enrollment applies to all other eligible students.
Eligible students may access their Kalamazoo Promise funding any time within ten years of graduation, and funds may be used for any credit-bearing program offered by an post-secondary institution.
The Kalamazoo Promise is a "first-dollar" scholarship that is awarded before any other source of funding is considered. (This is an unusual approach in the Promise field.) This means that students are able to access additional financial aid, such as federal Pell Grants or institutional scholarships, and add them to their Kalamazoo Promise funding. For low-income students, this first-dollar structure may make it possible to attend college outside of Kalamazoo. As of 2022 the anonymous donors had awarded over $180 million to close to 7,000+ graduates.
The Kalamazoo Promise will continue in perpetuity, giving students, families, businesses, and others affected by the program a long timeframe within which to take the scholarship program into consideration when making decisions (e.g., about which district to attend, where to buy a home, and where to locate a business).
The donors behind the Kalamazoo Promise have opted to remain anonymous. This has required the surrounding community to take the initiative to ensure that all students can take advantage of their scholarship funding. Community support has included everything from increased numbers of volunteers in the schools to new tutoring and mentoring programs offered by area churches to the creation of Higher Promise that promotes internships with area employers.
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 Kalamazoo Promise has been to reverse the school district's decades-long slide in enrollment. Between 2005 and 2019, enrollment in the Kalamazoo Public Schools grew by 26 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 also intensified efforts by KPS to create a strong college-going culture that reaches every student in the K-12 system. Research by the W.E. Upjohn Institute shows that The Kalamazoo Promise brought about improved student performance in secondary school and increased degree attainment for Kalamazoo Promise recipients.
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 should have some impact on the housing market and population, although these outcomes are difficult to study rigorously. 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.
This page was revised and updated in November 2023.