The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo

The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo

The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo

The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo


This book investigates the origins and initial responses to the Kalamazoo Promise and its relevance as a model for other communities.


This story began for me at 7:59 a.m. on November 11, 2005, minutes after taking my daughter to preschool in our hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Tuning in to the local public radio station at the top of the hour, I was surprised and a bit puzzled to hear that the superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) had announced a new scholarship program that would send all graduates of the school district to college for free. After spending 25 years in higher education, first as a student and then a professor, I knew a fair amount about financial aid, including these two basic facts: almost all scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic merit or financial need, and flew cover the entire cost of college. The news seemed too simple and sweeping to be true.

Later that day, the local newspaper offered these specifics: The Kalamazoo Promise would provide scholarships to every KPS graduate who had resided in the district for at least four years. The scholarships could be used at any public college or university in the state, and, depending on how long one had attended KPS, would cover between 65 percent and 100 percent of tuition and mandatory fees. For students who had lived in the district and attended its schools since kindergarten, the full cost of college tuition and fees would be paid by the anonymous donors who had bestowed the Kalamazoo Promise on my community.

It was immediately clear that this program held the potential to transform not just the college-going patterns of Kalamazoo’s young people and the personal finances of their parents, but the entire community—indeed, even the region. As an investment in the human capital of every high school graduate of an urban school district, it was unprecedented. As a catalyst for other investments—well, who could tell?

My years in Kalamazoo had been marked by alternating bouts of hope and anxiety as I watched the city and its urban school district struggle against a tide of corporate downsizing and persistent unemployment. Every step forward—a new hospital building or the renovation of the downtown mall—seemed to be followed by a step backward—another plant closing or the next in a series of corporate mergers. As high-paying jobs evaporated, middle-class families left the region, which decreased overall enrollment and led to a growing concentration of poor and minority children in the public schools. As perceptions of the school district deteriorated, many of the middle-class families still living in the city opted to send their children to private or parochial schools, or to move a short distance to a neighboring school district. The cycle fed on itself, with negative perceptions translating into a harsher reality, and the increasing challenges faced by the school district in turn worsening public perceptions of it.

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