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Article of Interest - Kalamazoo, Michigan

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The Kalamazoo Promise: College Tuition for All Grads
Kalamazoo Gazette, November 11, 2005
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In a move with the potential to transform Kalamazoo Public Schools and the entire Kalamazoo area, KPS Superintendent Janice Brown on Thursday announced a program to provide four-year, full-tuition scholarships to KPS graduates to any public college or university in Michigan, beginning with the Class of 2006.

The scholarship program -- called The Kalamazoo Promise -- will cover 100 percent of tuition and mandatory fees for graduates who have been enrolled in KPS since kindergarten and whose parents live in the district. A partial scholarship of at least 65 percent will be given to students who enter after kindergarten and before 10th grade.

"It's been said that Kalamazoo is a very special community," Brown said in announcing the program at the school board meeting. "Tonight, we have proof of that more than ever, ever before."

The scholarship fund has been established by a group of anonymous donors who see this as a means of promoting economic development, Brown said.

She would not say whether the donors are local residents or provide other information. "You will not find out about the donor base," she said.

However, Brown said the group has the financial resources to make the multimillion-dollar commitment indefinitely.

She said the district graduates about 500 students a year and about 75 percent to 80 percent go on to college. She estimated the cost of the program will be about $3 million next year, and about $12 million a year by the time four graduating classes are in college.

"But as we double our enrollment," she said to laughter, "that cost would rise to $24 million a year. But we still have a commitment from our donor group. As one of them said to me, `Isn't that the purpose?"'

`Unprecedented'

A scholarship program on this scale "has to be unprecedented," said Randy Eberts, executive director of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who added that the program has "far-reaching implications" for the entire region.

"This is going directly into the pockets of residents and it involves an activity that will benefit the entire community," said Eberts, whose wife is a KPS teacher. "This isn't trickle down. It's trickle up."

He and others listed the benefits:

For the school district, it likely means turning around an enrollment slide that dates back more than three decades. KPS now has about 10,200 students.

For the city and other communities, such as Kalamazoo and Oshtemo townships that form the school district, it means a likely boost in their tax bases as families move into the district and home prices rise.

For the region, The Kalamazoo Promise will result in a better-educated work force and provide a powerful incentive for businesses to locate in the area.

"This will result in national attention that's going to put Kalamazoo in a very positive light," Eberts said. "People are going to say that this is a community that really values education and that's serious about having a quality work force. ... This is such a boon for the region."

That point was not lost on the audience at the board meeting. Some cried as Brown detailed the program and others sat in stunned shock. After the announcement, Brown invited public comment. Several of the speakers choked back tears.

"This is absolutely fantastic," Kalamazoo Mayor-elect Hannah McKinney said. "I can't believe we have such a generous community. We've talked about giving kids hope, and you've given them hope."

Mayor Robert Jones said, "This represents a tremendous opportunity for every kid to go to college without any excuses. For the city, well, it sets the city apart. We really have something now that gives us a competitive advantage in attracting business to this area."

Several officials predicted Thursday that the district almost certainly will see an enrollment surge from families eager to save tens of thousands of dollars in college costs. This year's freshman tuition and mandatory fees total $6,478 at Western Michigan University, $7,652 at Michigan State University and $9,218 at the University of Michigan.

"You're talking a big chunk of money," Eberts said. "KPS will become the district of choice. ... I think you'll see property values increase. This is quite an incentive to locate inside the school district."

Brown said she and district staff are ready for an influx of students.

"This will create a whole new environment for us," said Gary Start, KPS deputy superintendent and finance director. "A new real estate environment. A new enrollment environment. Students who couldn't afford college before can go now. That's got to have an effect on their focus and student achievement.

"This is really going to be good."

Legal assurance

Speculation swirled Thursday night about the identity of the donors, but Brown said she was sworn to secrecy and board members said they didn't know who belonged to the donor group.

Brown said she had been in discussion with the donors for several years and described them as people "who truly understand the formula that education equals economic development and quality of life."

She said administration of the scholarship program is still being determined, and she would not provide details on whether an endowment was being established or whether the donors would pay the tuition bills as they came up.

"I can only say to you, don't worry about it," she said. "But definitely, the donor base has the money to meet this commitment."

KPS attorney John Manske said the program will continue indefinitely and the donors are providing "legal assurances" that it will cover everybody who is currently a KPS student, and students who enroll next year.

"Right now, this is in place for KPS and it will continue year after year," he said. "It's in place until we are told otherwise."

He said there have been discussions about how the program would end if and when the donor group makes that decision. The donors are committed to phasing it out in a way that does not break the promise to students in the system at the time, he said.

"If in 20 years, if the donor base says `enough,' then everyone enrolled at KPS at that time will still be eligible" for the scholarship, Manske said.

Board member Liz Henderson said her hope is that Kalamazoo will serve as an example to other communities.

"I'm hoping people will look at us and realize they can do this, too," she said.

     

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