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:
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 58 public and private colleges or universities 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 eligible college or university.
The Kalamazoo Promise is a "first-dollar" scholarship that is awarded before any other source of funding is considered. (Most of the programs modeled on the Kalamazoo Promise award scholarships only after federal financial aid is taken into account.) 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. In the first nine years of the program, the anonymous donors have awarded over $54 million to close to 3,300 graduates.
The Kalamazoo Promise will continue in perpetuity, giving students, families, businesses, and others affected by the program a long time frame 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, from the creation of private-sector-led internship programs to community-wide organizing efforts such as the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.
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 2014, enrollment in the Kalamazoo Public Schools grew by 24 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. Research by the W.E. Upjohn Institute also shows that the Kalamazoo Promise brought about improved student performance in secondary school.
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. Among other effects, the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise brought about more positive media coverage of the Kalamazoo Public Schools.
The chief lesson of the Kalamazoo Promise's first decade 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 increase their collaborative efforts; 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, 2015.