Let’s Make Kalamazoo’s Promise America’s Promise


In 2005, in order to boost their city’s economy, a small group of donors in the city Glenn Miller made famous created the Kalamazoo Promise. It  offered any graduate of the city’s public schools a four-year scholarship covering all tuition and mandatory fees at any of Michigan’s public colleges or universities, provided those students maintained a 2.0 grade average in college and made regular progress toward a degree.

The offer had an immediate and noticeable effect on public school enrollments and home construction within the city as families moved back in to take advantage of the chance to boost their children’s higher education opportunity. Enrollments in the public schools rose initially by 17.6% even as high school dropout rates fell by half. Residential construction permits within the district rose from 30% within the overall metropolitan area to 50%.  The program’s success caused other cities across the country as disparate as El Dorado, Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma to adopt similar programs.

Now a recent national study of the results of such initiative has documented the positive impact such promise programs can have on increasing educational attainment, while encouraging more students to attend a wide range of colleges.  University of Pittsburgh professors, LeGower and Walsh found that programs offering scholarships to all students regardless of merit, and to the widest range of two and four year colleges and universities, saw the biggest gains in enrollment. Their research published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, documented enrollment gains in Kalamazoo and other identical programs.

With these compelling results in hand, it’s time to make Kalamazoo’s promise America’s promise. A bi-partisan proposal from the non-profit Redeeming America’s Promise seeks to do just that by creating a federal American Promise Scholarship program that would pay the cost of tuition for every academically capable and personally determined high school student in America from families earning $180,000 or less. The plan would offer two year scholarships for high school graduates of $2500 per year, and four year scholarships worth on average $8500 per year to students graduating with a 2.75 GPA. These rates represent the current average cost of in state resident tuition at our public community colleges and universities. States would need to agree to accept such scholarships in lieu of any tuition payments from the families of APS students and at a minimum maintain their current level of support for their institutions. Additional incentives would be provided to encourage them to do even more to make sure a college education is both accessible and affordable for their residents. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, there is $52 billion in current expenditures which can be used to fund the American Promise Scholarships by redirecting the money the federal government currently spends on tuition tax credits as well as by integrating the Pell Grant program into this new form of support.

Other parts of the plan, which can be downloaded in its entirety at redeemingamericaspromise.org, would provide additional support for students who are the first in their family to attend college and reward college completion as well as post-graduation service to community or country. Money for these programs can be found by reducing the level of profits the government currently makes on student loans and ending other college support programs which have not proven their effectiveness.  

The current system of financing higher education is unsustainable.  Student loan debt, which is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, now exceeds one trillion dollars—more than all the credit card debt in the country. The burden is felt disproportionately by lower and middle income families and is a severe drag on the desire of members of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) to start a family, buy a house and have children. Furthermore, there is no historical precedent for placing such a burden on our youngest citizens.

Since the country’s founding, education has been a key component of the promise of upward economic mobility. This has been true in every era, beginning with the Northwest Ordinance setting aside land for one room schoolhouses to the institution of mandatory, free primary education in all states at the time of the Civil War. The expansion of educational opportunities continued in the 20th Century as our growing Industrial Age economy required workers with a high school education for our factories and offices. Government funds in every state and community were set aside to provide a free, public high school education for boys and girls to respond to these new demands. Later in the century, after WWII, the GI Bill of Rights and then the Higher Education Act 0f 1965 were enacted to further encourage college enrollment, thereby establishing the educational foundation for our rapidly expanding middle class. It is only in this century that we have asked a generation, Millennials, to self-finance the education they need, and our country needs, to be economically successful.

This wrong-headed inter-generational and economically disastrous policy needs to end before America loses its global competitive edge for good. The current system is creating a skills gap.

America needs to make Kalamazoo’s Promise a promise every American can count on and that can address the growing skills gap in many parts of the occupational spectrum.  By joining with the Democrats and Republicans, young and old, who are already supporting Redeeming America’s Promise’s plan to make college tuition free we can ensure that day arrives sooner rather than later.

Morley Winograd is co-author of the newly published Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics and fellow of NDN and the New Policy Institute.

Graduation photo by Bigstock.