What the Free College Movement Can Learn from Kalamazoo

The small Midwestern city has pioneered a new way to help low-income students access higher ed.

The 700 students who graduated from Kalamazoo Public Schools in 2019 are unique. They are the first graduating class in this high-poverty city, located halfway between Chicago and Detroit, to have spent their entire K through 12 years knowing that their college tuition and fees will be largely or entirely free.

For this, they can thank the Kalamazoo Promise, the first of the current wave of place-based scholarship, or “promise,” programs. Launched in November 2005 by a group of anonymous philanthropists, the Kalamazoo Promise has provided scholarships to almost all of the city’s public school graduates since 2006. For students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools starting in kindergarten, any in-state public college or university, along with a select group of private colleges, is tuition-free. For those who attend for just high school, 65 percent of tuition is covered.

In the fourteen years since it was announced, the Kalamazoo Promise has reached more than 6,000 students. The Kalamazoo school district has grown by 25 percent, academic achievement is up, and the high-school graduation rate is rising. Almost 90 percent of the district’s graduates head to college or another form of post-secondary training—an exceptionally high rate for a low-income urban school district. Of the district’s graduates, 50 percent complete a post-secondary degree or credential within ten years of graduating, up from 40 percent before the program.

Most high school graduates are not so lucky. After marching across commencement stages, many end their education. Those who go on must pay for increasingly expensive college degrees. College costs have been rising for decades, and the growing burden on students and families has moved center stage as student loan debt has reached crisis-level proportions. As a result, “free college” has become an increasingly popular idea, making an appearance in the platform of almost every Democratic presidential candidate, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Free college is a powerful concept, and it can boost college enrollment and completion. But the experiences of Kalamazoo and other cities with promise programs offer valuable lessons on how free college should work. Few promise programs are as simple and generous as the Kalamazoo Promise. Many provide students with less money and fewer choices, and make what they do offer contingent on student performance. As a result, they do not reach as many students and families.

Policymakers should instead make promise scholarships generous. They should make them available to all students, not just those with the highest grades. And as scholarship programs in places as diverse as Kalamazoo, El Dorado, Arkansas, and the state of Tennessee show, promise programs are especially effective when they provide recipients with community support, not just money.

Since Kalamazoo set course, nearly 150 local communities and almost two-dozen states have created their own free-college programs. But the impact in many places has been less dramatic than in Kalamazoo. That’s because of design decisions made by program stakeholders.

Consider program generosity. In Kalamazoo and a few other communities, scholarships are awarded on a “first-dollar” basis, where promise money is used first and low-income students can add their Pell grants on top of it, allowing them to cover some living expenses. In most places, stakeholders have opted for “last-dollar” structures, where low-income students must use Pell grants first and the promise scholarship closes any remaining gap. This decision may save money, but it has the largely unintended outcome of channeling more promise dollars to non-poor than to poor students. More importantly, it means that low-income students receive little “new” money, making it harder for them to afford all the other costs of college—from books to meals.

Another key question is who receives the scholarship. Many communities have sought to target their promise scholarships on “deserving” students, measured by high-school GPA and attendance rates. On the surface, this may seem like a sensible way to conserve resources. But such targeting tends to disadvantage low-income students who generally have lower academic achievement levels. In a promise experiment in Milwaukee, for example, the average GPA of ninth graders at the time the program was announced was 1.8 on a 4.0 scale, and the average attendance rate was 81 percent. Yet the program required a GPA of 2.5, and 90 percent attendance. These cutoffs mean Milwaukee’s Promise was uniquely ill-suited to help the students it pledged to serve. Ultimately, only 21 percent of students ended up eligible for the scholarship.

Proponents argue that performance cutoffs inspire students to work harder. But researchers have found no evidence that that’s the case. Instead, all they do is direct resources to high-performing students, a group that is typically wealthier, and that needs the scholarship least. In one Michigan community, for instance, students must have a 3.5 high-school GPA to receive a promise scholarship, yet they are only allowed to use it at one of two local, non-selective two-year institutions. This high GPA requirement means that the program benefits white, non-poor students and school districts far more than the area’s low-income students of color. And it does this by channeling them into institutions that are, academically speaking, generally a poor fit. It’s kids with GPAs below 3.5—not A-level students—who would benefit most from free community college. But they are the ones left out.

In Kalamazoo, by contrast, rules are minimal. Academic success has no bearing on scholarship eligibility (although it will naturally determine where students will be admitted). The scholarship is awarded irrespective of financial need. Students have 10 years after high-school graduation in which to access their promise funding. The application form is a single page.

As a result, the Kalamazoo Promise (and programs like it) reach a critical mass of students attending the same school district and living in the same community. It is therefore perceived as being for the community rather than for a specific group of students, resulting in broad buy-in. “It changed the debate about whether we could send our youth to college into a conversation about how we send our youth to college,” said Carrie Pickett-Erway, of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

In what ways did the community follow through? One response was an outpouring of volunteer effort that strengthened tutoring, mentoring, and literacy. Churches in the historic African-American Northside neighborhood drew on their college-educated members to create new tutoring programs for neighborhood children. Growing numbers of volunteers offered their time to nonprofits that provide literacy training for adults and summer writing programs for kids. Organizations with long histories, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Club, were able to attract new resources and expand their reach.

The Kalamazoo school district also innovated. All students enrolled in AP courses are now required to take the AP exam, with the district paying the exam fee. The schools also pay for PSAT and SAT testing for all high-school students. Every sixth grader visits the local four-year university. Every student’s school identification card is now a library card, and all high-school students, beginning this year, will be able to use their IDs as city bus passes so that they can more easily participate in after-school and off-campus events. All of these measures are helping first-generation students acquire “college knowledge” and expand their extracurricular experiences.

This inclusivity is highly motivating, “I was never a 4.0 student, or on the honor roll, or anything like that. What the Promise did was make me work harder to better myself,” said RayShawn Williams, a Kalamazoo Promise recipient and Michigan State University graduate. “I had my difficult moments and times I would want to quit and give up. I then thought about all of the people I would let down and… the wonderful opportunity I would be throwing away.”

It isn’t just Williams. My colleagues at the Upjohn Institute have found that bachelor’s degree completion rose as a result of the Kalamazoo Promise from 30 percent to 38 percent. Forty-eight percent of Promise students received some kind of degree or credential within six years of high-school graduation. The comparable rate for graduates from high-poverty school districts was only 20 percent.

More recently, states have taken the free college plunge. Tennessee offers scholarships to high-school graduates and adults without college degrees to attend two-year institutions, accompanied by a mentorship program that involves 9,000 mentors. The results have been striking and swift. Tennessee’s overall college-going rate rose from 58.9 percent to 64 percent, and degree completion rates for Tennessee Promise recipients exceed previous averages.

As in Kalamazoo, the Tennessee Promise has no family income or academic requirements. This has made it relatively easy for the state to deliver its “free college” message. Tennessee now leads the nation in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) filing rates, as more low-income students claim Pell grants.

But most state-level programs are more complex, incorporating requirements that disadvantage lower-income students. In New York, for example, the statewide Excelsior Scholarship is available only to students who take a full course load; in part as a result, only 3.2 percent of the state’s undergraduates received an award in the program’s first year. Arkansas’s promise program has so many requirements that it has struggled to find takers. In short, many statewide free-tuition programs have failed to incorporate lessons from a decade of local promises.

As discussion of free college moves forward, state and federal programs should be designed to more effectively replicate what has been successful at the local level. That means the nation’s next president, along with governors and state legislatures, should ensure that their programs are simple, generous, and provide students with a broad system of support.

The federal government, for example, could create matching grants for local or state free college programs. This would include not just funding for scholarships, but also for college preparation, access, and awareness at the K through 12 level. It would also include coaching or tutoring for first-generation and low-income students already in college, as is true in Kalamazoo. Additional resources could be targeted toward areas with higher child poverty rates or lower median incomes: in other words, where they are most needed.

Indeed, putting extra money in cities, counties, and communities that are distressed would help advance one of the greatest upsides of promise programs: revitalization and development. In Kalamazoo, for example, the Promise engendered a sharp increase in school district enrollment, driven mainly by a reduction in the number of families leaving the district. Experts have found declines in out-migration in other communities where robust programs exist.

Strong free college programs can even draw in new residents. “The Promise is front and center, and really amazes and attracts almost all who hear about it. It makes our very difficult job of recruiting and retaining talented associates so much easier,” says Ron Elenbaas, the retired CEO of a local hospitality management company. “The tone of our relocation candidate calls immediately changed,” says Dan Jaqua, a local realtor who works closely with major employers in the area.

Promise programs are no silver bullet, and meaningful economic revitalization can take time. A final asset of the Kalamazoo Promise is that it is intended to remain in place forever. Early evidence suggests it is working to draw scholarship recipients back to the community. Among those returning are half a dozen Promise recipients who have become teachers in the Kalamazoo Public Schools. And the children of some Promise recipients are now enrolled and on track to receive scholarships when they graduate.

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Michelle Miller-Adams

Michelle Miller-Adams is a Senior Researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and professor at Grand Valley State University. She is currently writing a book about tuition-free college for Harvard Education Press.