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A Powerful Promise

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When President Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Kalamazoo Central High School on June 7, he saw both a school and a community dedicated to providing all their children with the opportunity to earn college degrees. But he also witnessed the power of a promise that has the potential to reshape American education.

First announced in 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise made a simple and clear commitment to the young people of that West Michigan community—graduates of the public schools would be able to earn college degrees tuition-free in perpetuity. The anonymous donors who created the program wanted to see more Kalamazoo kids go to college, but their real goal was something larger. They wanted this unprecedented commitment to universal college education to power the economic transformation of their urban community.

Unless children, their parents, their teachers, and others in their community believe they are college-bound from the first days of their educational experience, the odds that they will find success in college and in life are greatly diminished.

Today, the positive results that have flowed from the promise are undeniable. Enrollment in the Kalamazoo public schools surged after decades of decline. More students have stayed in school, and far more are going to college. Record numbers of students and parents are turning out for college nights—some of them in elementary schools. The promise also has given impetus to school improvement efforts at all grade levels. Central High School, for example, has already increased the number of students taking advanced-placement courses by over 200 percent. And this spring, across Michigan, Kalamazoo students who were high school seniors when the promise program began are now celebrating their college graduations.

Kalamazoo has also weathered far better than other urban areas in the state the “perfect storm” that has battered our manufacturing economy. We’ve seen major new investments in the life sciences and other knowledge-based sectors in the area. Kalamazoo County’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the state, over 3 percentage points below the Michigan average. At a time of great economic uncertainty in the industrial Midwest, Kalamazoo is a community taking charge of its own economic destiny through universal higher education.

The power of the Kalamazoo Promise stems from its clarity and simplicity. There are only a few common-sense rules to follow and no complicated forms to fill out. While most high school seniors or their parents struggle to navigate the intricacies of the college financial-aid process, the promise program can be readily understood by 2nd graders and their parents.

This difference could not be more critical. The promise program has the potential to envelop a community’s children in a culture of learning—a set of expectations and aspirations that most affluent children grow up with as a matter of course. Unless children, their parents, their teachers, and others in their community believe they are college-bound from the first days of their educational experience, the odds that they will find success in college and in life are greatly diminished.

The power of the Kalamazoo Promise stems from its clarity and simplicity.

The promise program is also powerful because it has a universal message—college education for all—and it makes sure that includes low- and moderate-income children. Because it is not limited to the poor, the promise can help retain middle-class families that successful cities need. The strongest regional economies in the nation are anchored by core cities that have higher levels of educational attainment than the suburbs surrounding them. To replicate that success, we need policies that help today’s urban residents achieve higher levels of education while attracting families who want to be part of a community committed to higher education for all.

Kalamazoo put the concept of the universal place-based scholarship on the map, but it is an idea that is not content to stay in one place. The Arkansas-based Murphy Oil Co. gave $50 million to fund the El Dorado Promise. A $100 million commitment from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is making the Pittsburgh Promise possible. But not all of the promise programs sprouting up around the country are relying on the generosity of a few major donors.

Last year, Michigan designated “Promise Zones” in 10 high-poverty communities where a tax-capture mechanism will be used in conjunction with private donations and need-based financial aid to fund local promise programs. Over the next few years, in Michigan, a Battle Creek Promise, a Saginaw Promise, a Detroit Promise, and others will create universal scholarship programs that can be powerful tools for rebuilding local communities.

All of us should be thankful to the donors who made the Kalamazoo Promise and similar programs possible. But when it comes to achieving President Obama’s educational-attainment goals for the nation and reviving distressed communities, we cannot afford to depend on the private sector alone. We need to fashion creative public-private partnerships that can help hard-hit communities across the nation make the difficult transition to the knowledge economy.

Community by community, the example of the Kalamazoo Promise is changing the way we look at educational attainment and its relationship to economic development, particularly in our nation’s struggling cities. The students of Kalamazoo Central High School may have said it best in the essay that won President Obama’s visit: “We no longer merely hope for a future; we are confident that we are the future.”

Vol. 29, Issue 35

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