Kalamazoo’s Promise: What Happens When All Students Are Guaranteed College

By Stephanie Evergreen

Illustrator: Colin Johnson

Illustration: Colin Johnson

When Den’Asia* dropped out of school in the 11th grade, she already had a 2-year-old son and no ambition to go to college. “I didn’t have a strategy,” she says. “I was just going to get a job and save money.” Two years later, as Den’Asia recounts her journey to me, she is back at her high school as a senior. Now she has a five-year plan that includes degrees in nursing and business. She is already dually enrolled in courses at the local community college.

Her shift back to a focus on academics is part of a movement that started in 2005 with the implementation of the Kalamazoo Promise. In what may have been the most exciting school board meeting in history, the superintendent of the Kalamazoo, Mich., Public Schools announced the Promise—a scholarship to any public college or university in the state of Michigan for all Kalamazoo public school graduates, funded by a group of private, anonymous donors. The scholarship is awarded on a sliding scale, but unlike most scholarships, isn’t based on grades or good behavior. Attendance through graduation is key. Students attending Kalamazoo Public Schools since 9th grade have 65 percent of their tuition paid by the Promise. For each preceding year of attendance, the amount of the scholarship increases, so that students entering the school system in kindergarten have a full scholarship to college.

As educators and policymakers across the country search for ways to keep students in school and confront the yawning achievement gap, the Kalamazoo Promise holds out hope and possibility. Early data indicate that when students are guaranteed college tuition, many of those who need it most will indeed stay in and even return to school. And when students know that college is in their future, this knowledge can begin to inspire them to greater academic performance.

But the race and class conflicts and inequalities in Kalamazoo cannot be swept under the rug. These conflicts came to light when I spoke with students, teachers, principals, community leaders, city officials, and parents as a program evaluator for a U.S. Department of Education study of the Kalamazoo Promise. Our interviews were always confidential, which is why most quotes in this article are anonymous. I often wonder whether issues of race and class would still have surfaced had I not promised to keep private the identities of the interviewees.

Promise: “A Great Gift and a Huge Responsibility”

Immediately following the announcement of the Promise, people throughout the midsized city of Kalamazoo seemed ecstatic. And for good reason. City leaders saw the Promise as a way to bring economic revival to the postmanufacturing Midwestern town. According to the pastor of a largely African American church, it would be “a catalytic agent for our schools.” The scholarship would not only stave off the hemorrhaging of residents, but attract a new education-focused population. It would bring new businesses that wanted to capitalize on an educated employment base. It would put Kalamazoo on the map for something larger than what is now our industrial graveyard. One African American city official called it “a great gift and a huge responsibility.”

Indeed, in the time since the announcement of the Promise, lots of things have changed. Katie Couric flew in to cover a story on the scholarship for the CBS Evening News, catapulting the city to national attention. Kalamazoo Public Schools increased its student enrollment by over 11 percent the following year (a figure which included many new residents of the city), turning around the steady 5 percent annual decline seen in previous years. In fact, comparison districts have continued to decline by roughly 5 percent in the time since the Promise, as Kalamazoo continues to increase its enrollment. The increase ushered in millions of dollars of state aid (Michigan is a per-pupil funding state), which led to capital improvements in existing school buildings and the first new school to be constructed in 30 years. Companies like Kaiser Aluminum chose Kalamazoo as an expansion site in part because they were attracted to the scholarship’s benefits; they have brought much-needed job opportunities in these hard economic times. And students like Den’Asia thought twice about their futures. Den’Asia said, “I heard about it at church and thought I should at least try. It’s free.”

Another important change came for the public school stalwarts in the community. The actions of the anonymous donors were viewed as a strong commitment to the public school system, both for K-12 and higher education (the scholarship can be used only at public institutions). In the year following the Promise’s announcement, one of the charter schools in town shut its doors, citing low test scores and a significant loss of students who returned to the public schools to take advantage of the scholarship. Public school advocates are aware, however, of the irony of a major investment in public education through private and opaque funding.

Lack of Preparation Endangers Promise

So far in Kalamazooover 800 students, or 86.5 percent of those eligible for the scholarship, have used Promise funds to pursue higher education. This has created a new problem: Many of those 800 were inadequately prepared for college. Caught up in the excitement of the notion of “free,” a noticeable proportion of students have matriculated to our local community college and four-year university without the social, academic, or financial resources to succeed (books and board still add up). In an effort to bridge the gap, both institutions have enlisted special student support services. Back in one of the high schools, a math teacher confided his intention to quit at the end of summer. His frustration with the increasing number of students lacking basic skills has grown, as more of “the ones who would have dropped out” are staying in. I tell him, “This is a problem most districts wish they had.”

In the two high schools, the African American population has increased 17 percent, the Hispanic population has risen 24 percent, and those receiving free and reduced lunch are up almost 11 percent. In Kalamazoo, this profile closely mirrors those who were mostly likely to drop out.

Some teachers I interviewed were harshly critical of the cascade of additional responsibilities they perceived in the aftermath of the Promise (even as they teared up over the magnitude of the scholarship’s possibilities). They reported that they had more students in each class (particularly at the high school), more classes to teach each semester, and “not one iota of support.” Principals I spoke with verified the increased course loads and larger class sizes. They also said they’d never seen such qualified pools of applicants for vacant positions; many of these jobseekers were attracted by the scholarship. Though pay increases were not part of the scholarship package, the additional budget garnered through state funding, based on the ballooning enrollment and a well-timed successful millage request, provided them with more supplies, new computers, and more qualified colleagues; enthusiasm about the Promise has also resulted in higher attendance at parent-teacher conferences, and community support from groups like the Rotary and local realtors.

Interviews with students revealed excitement about the Promise but also many rumors and misconceptions. Students frequently reported that they had heard stories about graduates who started college and then dropped out quickly to get the scholarship money refunded, which they thought could be used for personal purchases like cars. Some students were told by their parents that they’d need a 3.0 GPA to benefit. One had heard it was only going to be handed out to the first 200 graduates. Many African American parents expressed distrust of the Promise based on long experience with what they saw as the racism of Kalamazoo and its school system.

Students from privileged families (usually white) saw the Promise as a nice local charity that had nothing to do with them. One student I interviewed remarked, “I don’t need the Promise; I already know I’m going to a private university.” Her father saw the scholarship as directed toward those in need; he never mentioned the racial aspect of the divide.

Promise Reveals Racial Conflicts

In the local paper, however, people were vocal about what they perceived as discrimination inherent in the Promise. In fact, letters to the editors that appeared shortly after the announcement contained hostile bites at the “undeserving” children in the urban schools. One writer stated that her suburban children were more worthy because the students in Kalamazoo Public Schools were lazy. As recently as a year ago, a letter claimed that the Kalamazoo Promise was a form of reverse racism.

The racial tension was also expressed by most of the community leaders I interviewed. Long-standing divides, marked literally by the vacant railroad tracks in Kalamazoo, bubbled to the surface. In contrast to the letters to the editor, a number of groups sprang up in response to the Promise, recognizing the lack of college preparation in many students and asking “How can we better support them?” Everything from more hoops in the park to regular tutoring sessions was organized by neighborhood organizations and churches. Maybe it was the afterglow, but almost everyone wanted to be a part of the excitement of the Promise. Yet there was little coordination of efforts and even less analysis of the real needs of the students, particularly on the part of organizations composed primarily of white people.

Many people I interviewed living in predominantly economically depressed areas of town, where the new “preparation services” were being focused, were less than pleased. A neighborhood community leader explained, “It’s an embarrassment. No one was coming to the rescue before. Now it’s a kick in the face. They say they want to help the poor kids, but nobody was looking before the Promise. They just want to be in the media spotlight.” Though I invariably heard the Promise described as “hope” and “opportunity,” many community members thought the support networks would be of higher quality and more likely to hold students’ attention if they were grounded in the neighborhoods where the students lived. Efforts at awareness-raising and college preparation that originated from inside these areas were welcomed and successful. The primarily African American Galilee Baptist Church, for example, began tutoring, homework help, and a parent support group for teen mothers; in fact, Galilee’s program is what inspired Den’Asia.

While many student and family support groups were well-intentioned, few were willing to engage in a real, socially conscious way. One African American educator, Jeanne Baraka-Love, wrote a letter to the local newspaper just after the Promise was announced, commending the opportunity it brought, but highlighting the new thinking that would be needed to solve deep-seated structural problems and attitudes. Development and social supports, she said, should stem from within the community, rather than occur as impositions from the outside, as has historically been the case in Kalamazoo. Three years later, as I interviewed her about whether that had changed, she said the meager efforts thus far were like “moving deck chairs on the Titanic.” Although overall community support of the Promise’s opportunity-motivated social change model has been widespread, the necessary discussion, planning, and funding to create adequate support structures has lagged as a result of conflicts around race and class inequalities. “Race is like a conversation bomb in this town,” another African American community leader told me. “If you bring it up, people run and scatter.”

Tentative Signs of Hope

Den’Asia’s tenacity is a sign of hope in a place where many people over 18 have a hard time getting along. Teachers and students both confirmed that there is a culture change taking place in the public schools. Jeff, a sophomore, recounted an instance I heard others repeat. “When somebody gets rowdy, we just check each other. Like, ‘Man, don’t mess this up. Don’t you know you got the Promise?’” It’s a mantra breathed from the counseling office to the cafeteria. An orientation toward college is settling in the core of teachers, even at the kindergarten level. The survey of students conducted as part of our research showed that motivation and behavior have improved, and aspirations have risen, particularly for African American females1.. Teacher expectations for students have increased, according to counselors, principals, students, and the teachers themselves.

Even though there are inspiring markers of victory, I can’t help but wonder if maybe a longer planning process and public debate about the program would have given us more time to lay a solid foundation as a community. Maybe the students would have been better prepared. Maybe the teachers would have had a chance to rethink their pedagogy to reflect a newly-internalized notion that, with proper preparation, all students in Kalamazoo Public Schools are college material (if they want to be). Maybe the community would have aired out its long-held racial divisions in the process of deciding whose taxes pay for whose futures. Such dialogues would have started to awaken important questions about race and class that for too long have been hushed. Each year, when the anniversary of the Promise’s inception is marked by city events, Kalamazoo has another opportunity, in the spirit of building community, to broach these sensitive topics.

If the Kalamazoo Promise continues to foster greater student aspirations and higher teacher expectations, resulting in increased graduation rates and college enrollment, it should become a national model for K-16 education reform.Rather than have neighboring cities and districts compete with one another in a “Race to the Top,” a federally funded Promise-type program could leverage support and cooperation across states and communities. The federal government could offer matching funds to states and/or communities to construct Promise programs. The resulting educational and economic benefits could be enormous.n


1 Miron, G., Spybrook, J., & Stephanie Evergreen. “Key Findings from the 2007 Survey of High School Students.” The Evaluation Center: Kalamazoo, MI, 200

Stephanie Evergreen is a research associate at the Evaluation Center in Kalamazoo, Mich., which conducted a two-year evaluation, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, on the impact of the Kalamazoo Promise (grant #R305A070381). She has a 4-year-old child and so stands to be a future beneficiary of the scholarship.

* Student names have been changed.