In a Rust Belt Town Where Tuition Is Covered, Economy Begins to Revive
Gabriel Ware reports in Yes! magazine:
Autre Murray, 24, never planned to go to college. He thought he couldn’t afford it—even with student loans. Besides, he wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of ending up in “debt up to the neck.” Instead, Murray planned to earn a high school diploma and find a job doing manual labor, maybe somewhere like a factory. He told himself he didn’t need a college education to become successful.
But now he’s on his way to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, as are other members of his Kalamazoo, Michigan, hometown. That’s thanks to the Kalamazoo Promise, a scholarship program first announced at a board meeting of Kalamazoo Public Schools in November 2005. The nonprofit of the same name provides scholarships that cover 65 to 100 percent of college tuition and fees for all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools who meet certain criteria. Students have 10 years from the day they graduate high school to use the scholarship.
“I might as well go now,” Murray says he told himself, when he heard about the Promise. “I’ll be stupid not to.”
Murray, the eldest of four children raised by a single mother, remembers his family relying on government assistance and bouncing from house to house in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Murray’s newfound hope was shared by many in this economically troubled city, which lost about 4 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000. The Promise was intended to reverse that trend by creating incentives for residents to remain in Kalamazoo and for new families to move in.
“The donors believe that a community’s vitality—politically, socially, and economically—is closely related to the educational level of the community,” says Bob Jorth, executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise. “In the knowledge-based economy that we’re in, almost all good jobs require some kind of training and education beyond high school.”
By many measures, the program has succeeded. The population began to rebound almost immediately, while dropout rates declined, particularly among African American women. Over its first 10 years, the Promise invested more than $75 million in 4,000 students, and at least 90 other communities across the U.S. have created Promise scholarships based in some way on Kalamazoo’s program. Barack Obama even considered it a model for a federally funded free community college program.
Realtors even began posting yard signs featuring the Kalamazoo Public Schools logo and the phrase “College Tuition Qualified” in front of homes. . .