Program Profile: The Baldwin Promise

October 13, 2015

 By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

Promise programs are an emerging trend in college access that
provide exposure to college resources for students in a particular place while also promising tuition help when they eventually get to college. These can be extremely useful in early awareness efforts because guaranteed money shows young students that they can finance their education. In Baldwin, Michigan, the Baldwin Promise was introduced in 2010 and has already helped create a stronger culture of college-going in Baldwin County. They were recently featured in The Atlantic and are a great organization that we were eager to profile.

The Baldwin Promise is universal to every student who graduates from a Baldwin High School and attends one of the federally accredited schools in Michigan. There are a few simple conditions. First, you have to apply. Ayana Richardson, Executive Director, explained it best: “We can’t just write out checks without knowing where they’re going.” The application simply informs the Promise about the student’s needs, school information, and how long they attended Baldwin High School. Different amounts are awarded based on how many years were attended in the school, and the full $5,000 is reserved for students who attended for four years. Every student who attended for at least one year and applies for the Promise receives an award. It’s a “middle-dollar” award, so students are encouraged to accept their financial aid packages from their universities and use the Promise to fill in the gap. Knowing the Promise money is available, but only after the FAFSA has been completed, has led to a big spike in the number of students who complete the FAFSA and pursue other methods of funding as well. 

Baldwin is a small town that, because of the Promise, is reaching for big goals. Each year’s graduating class ranges between 15 and 30 students, which means that Richardson and her staff get to know each student well. The school has a host of college-preparation activities that happen in the College Access Center. Some of the programming starts as early as fifth grade, when the students begin annual college visits across the state. College representatives visit Richardson’s college access center once a week to discuss their schools with students.  Richardson began “College Culture Wednesdays” which uses current college students and staff to help with resumes, cover letters, interview skills, and more to help the Baldwin students succeed in college. Each summer, they lead a trip to the southeastern Michigan schools because most students haven’t left their northern town. The center also co-sponsor a program called Growing Educators in Math and Science (GEMS) at Grand Valley State University, which allows the students to take their necessary high school courses in a college environment and prepare them for a future career in education. These programs work in tandem with the Promise by helping Richardson and her staff to see the students frequently and purposefully. The programming and the Promise give them the skills and confidence they need to succeed in college, which is just as important as scholarships. 

Richardson, who is not native to Baldwin but feels deeply tied to the community, explained that she has seen real improvements from her students and the community at large. The college access center is open to students and their families, and was established as a response to the increased ability to attend college. This center stands as an example of how the Baldwin Promise flipped the typical early-awareness model on its head. Early awareness programs can often focus on increasing academic and leadership skills to enroll in college, and then hopes to help you find funding later. Baldwin did the opposite: they told families first that funding is guaranteed, and the families gravitated towards the Promise for assistance in improving skills.

Since the Promise's establishment, the percent of graduating seniors completing the FAFSA has increased from 43% in 2012 to 94% in 2013 and has continuously been positive.Their annual “Decision Day,” which is going on its fourth year, last boasted 26 students out of 30 graduating who announced that they were planning to go to college. Of that 26, 21 turned in applications for the Promise. This year’s Baldwin graduating class will be the seventh cohort of Promise students, and while enrollment rates are available and have shown an increase, graduation rates of cohorts are not yet available.  Parents and students alike have more conversations around college and make more choices that make college completion a reality, and Richardson thinks that the comfort of knowing the Promise money is available to them is a huge factor in contributing the changing culture. 

Richardson is enormously proud of her program and students. She told me a story of a girl who was at risk of not graduating in 2012, who came to the college access center and got credit recovery, worked with the Promise, and eventually utilized the Promise to attend community college. She recently updated Richardson that she’d be transferring to Michigan State and was extremely thankful for the effort and care provided by Richardson and her team. Richardson finished by telling me that she’s loves to highlight the success of this student because its such a great story of perseverance. However, her favorite thing about the Promise is that she has the resources and ability to help all of the students in Baldwin, and that has made all the difference. 


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