Kalamazoo a leader in providing tuition
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The town with the funny name is now the biggest name in educational innovation.
Thanks to an anonymous billionaire, an aggressive school superintendent and a supportive mayor, high school graduates in Kalamazoo, Mich., can get college tuition and fees paid in full, with few strings attached.
The program, announced in late 2005, is being imitated in Newton, Iowa, Ventura, Calif., and now Pittsburgh, starting with the announcement yesterday of the Pittsburgh Promise by schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
"The indices from Kalamazoo are very positive," Mr. Roosevelt said. "We will shape this to be a Pittsburgh-specific program," he said, while borrowing Kalamazoo's concept.
In the struggling Michigan industrial town of 70,000, enrollment in the public schools was plunging. The district lost 700 students in a recent year, dipping close to the 10,000 mark.
Superintendent Janice M. Brown heard about a wealthy benefactor looking for a way to give to education. What emerged, with the help of Mayor Hannah McKinney, was the Kalamazoo Promise.
The promise: If a student goes to the district's public schools, from kindergarten through graduation, the program will pay their entire tuition and fees at any public university or community college in Michigan. There's no obligation to seek federal, state or private financial aid, though that is encouraged.
Students with less time in the district can get lower percentages of their costs covered. If a student joins the district in 9th grade, they can get 65 percent of tuition and fees covered, while those who enroll later than that are not eligible for aid.
Grade point average? Not an issue. Family income? Irrelevant. Behavioral problems? Not a problem.
"If you get a diploma, you're eligible for the promise, as long as you've lived in Kalamazoo" and attended the district's schools for four years, said Alex Lee, a district spokesman.
The program has been popular.
Last year the district graduated 502 students, of whom 410 were eligible for tuition help. Of those, 363 applied, and 318 are in college now, said Tim Bartik, a school board member and a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute.
Another researcher at the institute is studying the initiative.
So far, most are going to Kalamazoo Valley Community College or Western Michigan University. The cost to the anonymous donor is $2 million during the first year, and that's expected to rise significantly as more students enter the program, and some of those in community colleges advance to four-year schools.
Putting kids through college is viewed as a means to an end. "It was primarily seen as an economic development proposal by the donor," said Mr. Bartik.
The program is an arrow in the quiver of economic development pros, said Mr. Lee. The pitch: "If you put a business in Kalamazoo, Mich., any employee has the option of having the college tuition guaranteed for their children," he said.
As yet, no big business has moved its headquarters or opened a new plant in Kalamazoo as a result of the promise. School district enrollment, though, has jumped by 987 new students, to 11,367.
And home sales, down by around 7 percent in Michigan as a whole, are up 7 percent in Kalamazoo, Mr. Lee said.
Chanika Wyrick, 20, a graduate of Kalamazoo Central High, is using the program to cover the cost of community college. A foster child now living with her grandmother, she will need that money, plus three other scholarships she has found, when she advances to Wayne State University next year, on her way to a career helping troubled teens.
She's trying to sell her friends on the promise. "I try to get them [in college]," she said. "They just all want to do their own thing."
First Published December 14, 2006 12:00 am