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© Frank


The Potential of the Kalamazoo Promise

by Michelle Miller-Adams
May 9, 2019

This interview with Michelle Miller-Adams, a professor and senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

frank: Let's start with some background.

Michelle: I am trained as a political scientist. My degree is in international relations, and I worked a lot on economic development over the years. I can pinpoint the moment I transitioned from working on international issues to domestic issues. I was involved in a Ford Foundation project about asset building for poor communities. This work is based on the idea that we take a largely income-based approach to supporting poor people in this country, transferring income on a monthly basis, and this doesn't ever allow people to get out of poverty or get ahead.

There's a whole other set of strategies that you can use to help low-income people acquire new assets. These might be economic assets like savings that people can use to invest in a business or a home. We can also help people build human capital by investing in their skills and education. Social capital can also be created through these strategies. I wrote a book about this asset-building movement called Owning Up, and I remained really interested in these ideas. Four years after it was published, I found myself living here in Kalamazoo when the Kalamazoo Promise was announced, and it immediately resonated with me as an asset-building opportunity for the community and its people.

Can you explain the Kalamazoo Promise?

Yes, absolutely. The Kalamazoo Promise, which was introduced in November 2005 is a promise by a group of anonymous donors, wealthy people from the local community, to send potentially every child who goes through the Kalamazoo Public Schools to college, and to pay their tuition and fees for them. It's a uniquely generous program because it will pay whatever the tuition and fees are, even if they go up over the years, to whatever school you can get into. That might be the University of Michigan, it might be the local community college. Obviously, the amount of your scholarship will differ, depending on where you get into school. It's a very generous model in part because it’s a “first dollar” scholarship program.

This means that the Kalamazoo Promise gets applied to tuition before any other form of financial aid, and then if a student receives other forms of financial aid, like for example, Pell Grants, those get added on top of the Kalamazoo Promise.

The school district that the Kalamazoo Promise benefits is the high-poverty urban school district that serves most of the region’s poor students and students of color. About 70% of students in the district are considered economically disadvantaged. There are a few other things that make the Kalamazoo Promise uniquely generous: You can use it any time within 10 years after high school graduation, and the program is set up to continue in perpetuity. It’s also very flexible in terms of what you can do with it. You can use it to go to a four-year traditional undergraduate degree program, or you can use it for career and technical education at the local community college. You can also use it for very short- term certification and training programs, including some with local labor unions and vocational training programs.

We use the word “college” as shorthand, but what we really mean is post-secondary education and training in all its various guises.

The Kalamazoo Promise has been in place now for 13 years, and almost 7,000 students have used it. We at the Upjohn Institute have done a lot of research into what the impacts have been. One of the biggest impacts is that many other communities said, "We want to do something like this." We saw in the years following the introduction of the Kalamazoo Promise an explosion of what can be called place-based scholarship programs, which are promises to make college tuition-free for students within a particular geographic area. Usually the area is a school district, although sometimes it’s a city or a county. The really important part is that this is a new model for college financial aid.

Financial aid historically has followed individual students and has been based on their characteristics. If you're low-income, you qualify for Pell Grants; if you're high achieving, you might get a merit scholarship. If you play the violin, you might get a scholarship to be in the orchestra. This type of scholarship is different because the key criterion for getting it is the place.

What that does is create the potential for a program that transforms not just student opportunity but also the place itself.

Promise programs have two facets. One is the benefit to individuals, with students able to go to college tuition free. But there are also public benefits for the community itself. If you offer scholarships to enough students in a particular place, you're going to have an impact on the school district itself, on organizations that serve young people, on the business community, on the economic vitality of the community itself. I'm really interested in understanding programs that have both a public good and a private good, and this I think is what links this work to my earlier areas of interest.

Have there been unintended collateral consequences with this project? Are there examples of others adapting the Kalamazoo Promise that don't work as well?

Yes, absolutely. What's fascinating about this field from a researcher's standpoint is its heterogeneity, the fact that these programs look different in every community. We have about 150 of these place-based programs in our database, and literally, no two of them are alike. The reason they're different is they come out of local communities – they build on local assets and they try to respond to local needs. So for example, there's a program in San Francisco, your former hometown, that sends students from San Francisco schools to the local community college tuition free. It's called the Free City Program, and it's funded by a tax on real estate purchases in excess of $1 million.

Which would make it all of the real estate purchases in San Francisco.

Right. A program like that only works in a high-value real estate market like San Francisco. It wouldn't work as well in a place like Detroit, because the housing market is so different. These programs look different in different places because of the assets each community has. Almost all of the other programs that we consider part of this place-based family are not as generous as the Kalamazoo Promise. There are a couple of exceptions but, in reality, for most of these programs the stakeholders are financially constrained. As a result, they’ve often made a decision that has important, unintended consequences.

That decision is to structure these scholarships as “last-dollar” programs, meaning that students must use their existing forms of financial aid, mainly Pell Grants, first, and then the Promise program will close whatever the gap is between Pell Grants and tuition and fees.


It's a major cost-saving maneuver. You're making use of existing financial resources. The problem, though, is that if you have a place-based scholarship program that allows students to attend only community colleges, and the students who are low-income and are eligible for Pell Grants are already going to have their community college tuition covered by those Pell Grants, who is going to be getting the Promise money? It is not going to be your low-income students. It's going to be the non-poor students. Does that make sense?


That's an unintended consequence. Nobody goes into this business saying, "Oh, we're going to start a program to send a bunch of non-poor students to college." This is just a byproduct of that last dollar approach. There are still some good things about last-dollar programs. Families above the Pell cutoff really struggle with college costs, and we know how fast college costs have risen. Middle-income families are stressed, and they're taking on too much student loan debt. So last-dollar programs really serve that population, which is not eligible for Pell Grants. The other thing that's helpful is that when you go into a school district with a very simple message that college tuition will be free, you bring a lot of people into the process who would not otherwise have gone to college.

Instead saying to a bunch of seniors, "Oh, go fill out your FAFSA. We'll see if you qualify for Pell Grants, and then you can decide if you can afford college or not," instead you say to students from Kindergarten on, "Hey, guess what? You're going to get to go to college tuition free.” Later on, when you're a senior, you're going to have to fill out your FAFSA, but this is a very different message, and it can reorient the culture of a school district.

When the assumption is that everyone is going to college, you will have a bunch of low-income students who previously would not have filled out their FAFSA who are now filling them out and getting Pell Grants and going to college.

Now that the Promise model has made the jump from the local to the state level, the implications of this last-dollar model are becoming clearer. Some Washington, DC think tanks, like Education Trust and Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), have over the past year put out reports that are quite critical of this last-dollar model. As advocates for low-income students they have pointed out the unintended consequence that many Promise programs are not actually providing low-income students with “new money”. So this is a interesting and ongoing debate in the Promise field.

Theoretically, this works best when it's hyper-local. Is that what the data shows?

Yeah. I agree. The impacts on systems are strongest when programs are local. You get the school district adapting. You get the Realtor community changing patterns of where they show people houses when they come to town. Tutoring programs work more intensively and in a more aligned fashion. That happens with these local programs. I wrote a book about the early years of the Kalamazoo Promise, and the bottom line was the money only gets you part of the way. The other part is what happens as a result of the catalyst of the money. How does it change people's and organizations' behaviors?

Without that alignment and that community buy in and engagement, you don't really get system transformation. And transforming systems is much harder once you move up to the state level.

On the other hand, we have two really great examples of what can happen with a well-designed state program. We have the example of the Tennessee Program, which is really an  exemplar. It's the first of these universal statewide programs, and it's one of the best designed. There's also a small, newer program in Rhode Island. Both of these initiatives suggest that you can dramatically expand higher ed enrollment, and even trickier things like retention and completion if you have a strong, simple message around college being tuition free, and support mechanisms in place to help students navigate that transition.

One of the things about the Tennessee program that's interesting is it actually started as a local program. It then expanded to the region, then to the whole state. In the more local phase, the program had combined financial aid with a mentorship component, and researchers found that the mentorship component was really important. When the statewide program was built, program stakeholders made sure to pair the financial benefit with a huge statewide mentorship program that engages thousands of mentors from the business community

There are a lot of lessons to be learned at the local level that can be applied to programs at a larger scale. This is one of my concerns around the discourse around a nationwide free college program. People are not really internalizing the message that the money is not the whole story. Just by making college free, you're not necessarily going to drive up attainment rates in a major way, especially among the people you're trying to serve, who are the ones who historically have not gone to college. If you come at this with equity concerns, you have to think seriously about student support, both in high school and navigating the high school to college transition, and in terms of career development – and then support in the post-secondary setting and out into the workforce.

When you say support, you mean economic, academic, emotional, transitional, etc...

Right. Mentorship, tutoring, addressing basic students needs. The community colleges have been experimenting with this for years, but they've had to do it on a shoestring budget. We know what works. It's what people call “high touch” supports. Many students attending community college need a navigator. They need a cohort. They need someone who's going to make them go to see an advisor. They need to make sure their basic needs, like food and shelter, are met. They need all these things to be successful academically. Just sending a low-income student to a community college and saying, "Oh, you don't have to pay tuition," it's kind of bullshit because they already could've gone for free with their Pell Grants. You're not really bringing new money, and yet, people are expecting new outcomes. And there are all these other issues, like paying for living expenses and all of these student support pieces that are needed. It seems unfortunate to me that the free college rage, which is going on right now, is missing that fundamental insight that you're expecting new outcomes without actually creating new incentives for people.


There's one other thing I want to mention about program design, because a while ago, you asked about unintended consequences.

Yes, please.

One of the things we've seen is that many communities have opted to include a high school GPA requirement in their Promise programs. In Kalamazoo, you have to at least have spent your four years of high school in the Kalamazoo public school district, not only attending but also residing, which is how we know the donors are thinking of this as an economic development program, but there are no academic requirements. But in many of these Promise programs, there are.

In some cases you need to have a 2.5 GPA in high school, or even a 3.0 GPA. One program I just read about requires a 2.7 GPA. I understand the impulse that leads stakeholders to create these merit floors. What they will usually say is, "We don't want to set up students for failure in higher ed. We only want to give this to students who are prepared for success." But in reality, you're doing three things with these requirements, which often include high-school attendance rates as well. First, you add a lot of administrative complexity and make your messaging more confusing when you do that. Another problem is you dilute those effects on the system. So, for example, in Kalamazoo, you've got almost every student in the high school eligible to go to college tuition free. In a place with a 2.5 GPA cutoff, maybe only half the students sitting in the high school will benefit from it. So, you can't really make that the culture jumps like, "Hey, everyone should go on to post-secondary education and training." The last reason why these merit requirements are problematic is that they disproportionately screen out low-income students and students of color. If you're coming at this from an equity standpoint, and then you put a merit requirement on, you're fighting against yourself.

That's another, I would say, unfortunate evolution. Of course, what’s happened now is that many of the statewide programs have adopted that same kind of merit model. So the Oregon Promise required a 2.5 high school GPA. Maryland, for some reason, came up with a 2.3 high school GPA. That's not based in research or evidence or anything. It's just some stakeholders who said, "Well, we shouldn't give this to everybody, because you're going to have students go off and fail."