Letter from the Editor: Free college was a promise kept. Definitions of ‘success’ remain elusive in Kalamazoo

Loy Norrix High School graduation

Andy Garcia walks the stage at Loy Norrix High School graduation at Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. Garcia and his classmates were born the year the Kalamazoo Promise was established. (Rodney Coleman-Robinson | MLive.com)Rodney Coleman-Robinson | MLive.com

In 2005, all eyes were on Kalamazoo as the community announced a one-of-a-kind philanthropic program with an audacious “promise” – free college tuition for students who graduated from the public school system.

Eighteen years and 9,500 eligible graduates later, The Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program has been many things to many people, with undeniable positive outcomes. Compared to other communities in Michigan, Kalamazoo schools are healthier and send more kids to college.

Also, families who are relieved of the burden of college tuition can invest that money into themselves and the community in myriad ways.

“Maybe they’re making a down payment on their house, or maybe they’re going to get their master’s degree,” said Aya Miller, a Kalamazoo Gazette reporter who co-authored a package of stories on The Promise with retired reporter Julie Mack. “So it’s money that ends up being used down the line for something else to build their futures.”

But as the children born in the year The Promise launched graduate from high school, MLive’s reporting has revealed a story that is more complex, and in some ways concerning. Most notably, one generation in there is a clear divide on college success based on race.

“The people who have benefited the most from the Kalamazoo Promise have been the district’s white middle-class students, and that’s because they’re the ones who are most likely to complete college,” Mack said.

Mack, who is white, had a daughter graduate from KPS and attend Michigan State University. She never saw a bill during that undergraduate period – The Promise pays colleges directly.

“When she graduated, The Promise sent me a letter saying, ‘Just so you know, we spent $50,000 on this child to get her through Michigan State.”

But the program’s data shows that minority students are less likely to go to four-year colleges and are far less likely to graduate. Over time, large gaps in equity (total dollars paid in tuition) and graduation rates have opened on a race basis.

A Black mother of two students who went to college on Promise funds, but ultimately dropped out, was quoted in the reporting as saying that disparity leaves “a bitter taste.”

The Promise “was a really good idea for people who had (college) as a path,” she said. “And some people, like our family, we were born on a trajectory to get a job out of high school.

“So we have this pressure of The Promise, which is that it’s a great opportunity and all this kind of stuff. But really, if you’re not ready, if you haven’t been prepared on that trajectory, then how successful are you going to be?”

Promise officials have invested in counseling staff inside the organization, and at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Western Michigan University, destinations for a good percentage of minority students. And Battle Creek, in building its own free tuition program, added historically Black colleges and universities as eligible institutions, even though they are outside of Michigan.

“When you have this opportunity in a district that the majority of the students are Black, it gives them more of an incentive to think, ‘More doors are open for me,’” Miller said.

At launch in 2005, Kalamazoo leaders painted The Promise as having the power to transform an entire community – not just educationally, but to increase city population, drive up property values and more. That hasn’t happened, the MLive reporting shows.

“Some touted this as an economic development measure – that this would break the cycle of poverty and could really transform Kalamazoo,” said Mack. “In terms of a wholesale community transformation, that has not happened – it is not a silver bullet.”

Which illustrates several points: A huge infusion of money does help, but not equally; and perhaps be careful what you promise – or at least, hope to achieve.

A generation in, there’s no question that Kalamazoo is benefiting from this generous and innovative grand idea – even if some results aren’t as hoped. That those running it have readjusted their vision and are working to make it better might be the best outcome of all.

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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at editor@mlive.com.

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