Promise of College Aid in Kalamazoo Praised; Potential Pitfalls Seen

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Residents of Kalamazoo, Mich., learned last month of a windfall that most parents can only dream about: A group of anonymous donors pledged college scholarships to every graduate of the city’s high schools, starting with the class of 2006.

News of the Kalamazoo Promise was greeted with enthusiasm locally and was splashed across newspapers nationwide.

“It is brilliant that they chose a scholarship program as a way to impact all facets of the community, such as economic development, quality of life, education, real estate, attracting new businesses, and a variety of other variables that we don’t know about yet,” Janice Brown, the superintendent of the Kalamazoo public schools, said last week.

“This is a chance for every student to succeed,” said Manuel Brenez, the district’s director of bilingual programs.

The Kalamazoo Promise stands out because of its scale—it could potentially benefit each of the 10,300 students in the city’s public schools, regardless of need, at least for the next 13 years. The scholarship will cover between 65 percent and 100 percent of the cost of tuition for four years at any Michigan public college.

But elsewhere, other philanthropists have made gifts of postsecondary education for classes, schools, neighborhoods, and even a small town. In some cases, the gifts have had disappointing or unintended results.

George A. Weiss, a Hartford, Conn., money manager, has started several programs to help students around the country attend college. His latest program would benefit kindergartners at five elementary schools in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. Besides offering them mentoring help to make their way through K-12 schooling, he will pick up full tuition costs at any college or vocational school they want to attend.

Mr. Weiss’ first such gift was in 1987, when he promised to pay for the college education of 112 6th graders in Philadelphia. But fewer than 20 of the original group went on to graduate from college, according to a 1999 article in Philanthropy magazine. Twenty of the students went on to commit felonies, and four were murdered in later years, the Philanthropy article said.

A Town’s Story

In one Oregon town, a gift of education made more than four decades ago has in recent years become mired in controversy.

In 1959, timber magnates Rex and Ethel Clemens of Philomath, Ore., a logging town of 4,000, established the Clemens Foundation, a scholarship program that provided tuition aid to any student who graduated from Philomath High School. The scholarships covered tuition at Oregon State University in Corvallis, or an equal amount to any other college in the nation.

So far, about 1,200 students have earned degrees under the program, said Susan Sapp, the foundation’s office manager.

Philomath’s population has more than doubled since 1959, and the foundation’s board has adopted a requirement that students must have been in Philomath public schools for at least eight years before they can be eligible for the scholarships. Ms. Sapp said real estate agents started using the scholarships to encourage people to move into the area, while Mr. Clemens, who died in 1985, had originally meant the program to benefit the families of workers at his timber company. Mrs. Clemens died in 1995.

“Some people were moving here for the last three months of school just to get the scholarship,” Ms. Sapp said.

In 2002, the foundation’s trustees made further cuts to the program, citing, among other things, what they said was the involvement of teachers at the high school in radical politics against the timber industry. The scholarships are now given mostly to students in private Christian schools and students from families with timber, agriculture, mining, or ranching backgrounds.

Helping Students Dream

Observers in the philanthropy community say that to succeed, programs like the Kalamazoo Promise ought to provide a support system for students to prepare them for college and, once they are in college, to keep them focused on earning a degree.

The “I Have A Dream” Foundation, based in New York City, implements programs to mentor and tutor low-income children and helps pay for their higher education. Since 1981, the group has helped set up 189 programs working with philanthropists and community groups, said foundation President Marina W. Winton.

For students from disadvantaged families, in particular, college “is a very different and challenging environment,” Ms. Winton said, “and they need a support mechanism to stay in school during those rough times, and they need someone to encourage them to stay.”

In Michigan, some universities have already pledged to do their bit to make college life easier for the beneficiaries of the Kalamazoo Promise. Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo has offered free room and board to those students, while Wayne State University in Detroit has offered to subsidize room and board.

PHOTO: Kalamazoo public schol students, from left, Kayla Waldron, Rachael Vondran, and Kaitlyn Vondran, and mother Michelle Vondran react to the announcement about a college-scholarship program.
—Linsey Wuepper/Kalamazoo Gazette/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 14, Page 14

Published in Print: December 7, 2005, as Promise of College Aid In Kalamazoo Praised; Potential Pitfalls Seen
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