For Kalamazoo Students, Free Degrees

The New York Times Magazine’s Education Issue this weekend includes a deeply moving story about the Kalamazoo Promise. Thanks to a major gift from anonymous donors in 2005, any graduate of the city’s two high schools can attend public colleges in Michigan for free.

“Blind to family income levels, to pupils’ grades and even to disciplinary and criminal records,” the program is “the most inclusive, most generous scholarship program in America,” Ted Fishman writes.

So far, the donors have spent $35 million on 2,500 students, an average of $4,200 per student per semester, and other districts around the country have copied the model. In 2010, Yale University pledged around $4 million annually for a similar program in New Haven, a city that resembles Kalamazoo in its size and industrial past. Meanwhile, Democrats in the state Senate are trying to extend the Kalamazoo Promise to all high school graduates in Michigan, paying for tuition through changes to tax code.

The donors thought of their gift as a social experiment, according to Fishman. They wanted to invest massively in the local economy in Kalamazoo, and to restore a sense of civic pride in a community with an all-to-familiar history of urban decline. G.M. and Gibson, the guitar brand, had factories there, and Upjohn Company built what was then the world’s largest pharmaceutical facility nearby, Fishman writes. The manufacturers left, and Pfizer eventually acquired Upjohn. Unemployment rose and property values fell.

Now, more and more families are moving their children to Kalamazoo, and the district has been able to add 92 teachers.

The donors’ gift was extraordinarily generous and entirely laudable, but the Promise has limitations, as Fishman makes clear. Despite the offer of free college tuition, a third of high school students in Kalamazoo do not graduate:

A disproportionate number of them are black males, of whom only about 44 percent graduate. Even Kalamazoo, with the offer of free college tuition, has not figured out how to overcome the nation’s so-called achievement gap, which sharply separates the academic performance, and graduation rates, of urban black males from black females and whites of both sexes.

The New Haven Promise is contingent on good grades. Some argue that requirement makes the program effective in changing student attitudes, but others say it only limits the money to students who would likely graduate anyway. Other communities or philanthropists considering major gifts might also consider education in early childhood, which, as Fishman writes, could be a more effective use of their resources.

That said, high tuition does prevent students from thinking of themselves as eligible for college. The cost of postsecondary education isn’t the only obstacle to a college-going culture in public high schools, but still needs to be addressed.

As recently as 1970, University of Connecticut tuition was free. Perhaps the programs will encourage the Connecticut General Assembly and other legislatures around the country to follow the lead of their colleagues in Lansing and look for ways to make sensible investments in public colleges.

Max Ehrenfreund

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund