Reflecting on 10 Years: The Kalamazoo Promise

November 30, 2015

By Liz Glaser - Graduate Research Assistant

Fast Facts

Name: Kalamazoo Promise

Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan

Students Served1000

Universal Program: Yes

Program Age: 10 years


Continuing our series of program profiles, we are excited to highlight one of the most notable promise programs in the US: The Kalamazoo Promise, located in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Established in 2005, the Promise celebrated their tenth anniversary this year, and in the past decade has inspired nine governor-designated “Promise Zones” in Michigan that were modeled after the success and changes that the Promise inspired. In the Kalamazoo School District of about 13,000 students, the Promise has provided full tuition and fees to over 1,000 Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) graduates since its creation.  This year is their largest cohort yet, with about 1500 students enrolled in college and totaling about $13 million in scholarships. Bob Jorth, the executive director of the Promise, spoke with me to provide insight and updates on this great promise program.

The Promise is a broad place-based scholarship that has a few simple requirements. Recipients of the Promise must have attended at least ninth through twelfth grade in the KPS district, graduate from a KPS school, and attend a participating institution of higher education in Michigan. These are mainly public colleges, and beginning in 2015 includes public universities in the Michigan College Alliance. Students receive funding on a sliding scale, meaning that students who attended KPS schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade receive the full amount, and students who started in middle school or ninth grade receive a slightly lesser amount, but all students who attended ninth through twelfth grade are guaranteed full tuition and fees. The scholarship is guaranteed for four years or upon completion of a bachelor’s degree (whichever is first) and may be accessed for up to ten years after high school graduation. The only other stipulation is that students apply to the Promise during their senior year in order to access the scholarship. This is a first-dollar scholarship, so the FAFSA is not required, though the Promise offers assistance for FAFSA completion so that students may maximize their potential for federal aid as well as the Promise scholarship. Because room and board are not included in the scholarship, FAFSA completion can help students find funding to cover the costs of living expenses . Place-based scholarships like in Kalamazoo are intended to create a community that values college-going, and Kalamazoo recognized that minimizing barriers to the scholarship and making it as accessible as possible would lead to the best results for the most students. 

Promise Programs act as early awareness programs because they inspire awareness, conversation, and college planning among young students. Jorth and the staff at Kalamazoo agree, and they begin their college curriculum early. In second grade, each KPS student is given a book about college, and different community members visit classrooms and read the book aloud to the students. In sixth grade, every KPS student is taken on a college visit to Western Michigan University. In tenth grade, every KPS student enrolls in a college readiness class that ensures they learn skills necessary for success in college. Because the promise of the scholarship is guaranteed, community partners, schools, and families all have a vested interest in ensuring that their children and students understand the importance of higher education and are prepared. 

Early awareness begins with making the prospect of college accessible, but it is also critical that there is a focus on academics. In Kalamazoo, Jorth noted that “the scholarship is kind of at the end of the pipe, so if students don’t have the skills and knowledge to succeed, they won’t need the scholarship.” He mentioned that because of the Promise, he’s seen a change in the community and the way it talks about and teaches college readiness. He has appreciated the school district’s willingness to prepare students academically to most effectively utilize the support financially. Community alignment is always a challenge in cities that are faced with radical changes, but Jorth indicated that over time partnerships have strengthened. The school district has redeveloped their curriculum to get students thinking about college, taking rigorous classes to prepare for college, and preparing to succeed in college. Businesses have offered support, and donors have offered money to assist with the scholarship. The community college in the area has recognized the importance of support services for these students, so Promise Scholarship recipients are now expected to utilize tutoring, mentoring, and other academic support services to help them succeed. Community leaders have committed to using the Promise to make transformational community change.

The most significant impact of the Promise is that, in Jorth’s words, the discussion about college attendance has shifted from “if” to “where.” At a recent event celebrating ten years of the Promise, Promise alumni spoke with current elementary school students about life in college, and Jorth was happy to see that the questions the elementary students asked were insightful and curious. He could tell by the types of questions they asked that these young students have understood the message and want to learn more about higher education. He also mentioned a recent conversation with a young student, in the early elementary grades, who he met in his neighborhood. She wasn’t even ten years old, and she already knew where she wanted to go to college. It’s easy to see that the Kalamazoo Promise is having an impact on the 1500 students currently enrolled in college, the over 800 alumni who have received credentials, and the community change in district curriculum and planning, but Jorth noted that he feels the effects on a more personal level with the smaller interactions that occur daily with younger students. The message is simple: this city wants its young kids to graduate from college. And in Kalamazoo, they’re owning that message loud and clear.


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