Kalamazoo saw 20 percent gains in its enrollment

By Emily LeCoz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – If Tupelo approves a proposal to offer a four-year university tuition guarantee, it would join the ranks of nine other U.S. communities with similar programs.
From El Dorado, Ark., to New Haven, Conn., a growing number of cities across the country are giving their high school graduates full-tuition scholarships at four-year colleges and universities.
And their legions are expected to grow, as early results from the programs show success in not only academic achievement but community development.
The trend started in Kalamazoo, Mich., with the 2005 launch of its tuition guarantee program called Kalamazoo Promise.
Since its debut, Kalamazoo Promise has sent more than 2,000 of the city’s graduates to college. It also helped reverse a 17-year enrollment decline in the Kalamazoo Public School District; led to the passage of two multimillion-dollar school bond issues, which in turn built two new schools; hired dozens more teachers; and lured at least one company – Kaiser Aluminum – to the city.
The district’s test scores have improved, its graduation rate has jumped by more than 10 percent and increasingly more students choose college as their post-graduation plan.
“For an urban school district, that’s just incredible,” said Bob Jorth, the program’s executive administrator.
Jorth said many of the students benefiting come from middle-class families, who earn too much to qualify for traditional financial aid or don’t earn enough to afford rising tuition costs.
Kalamazoo Promise is funded by private, anonymous donors who so far have paid out more than $25 million. This year alone will cost $8.5 million for the 1,100 students currently enrolled in college.
Its high school graduates some 550 students a year; Tupelo, for comparison, churns out about 360. Those who were enrolled in Kalamazoo Public School District since freshman year get a 65 percent scholarship to any in-state college or university. The percentage increases by 5 percent for each additional, consecutive year they’re enrolled in the district.
Those who attended since kindergarten get a 100 percent tuition guarantee.
There are no grade-point-average, attendance, homeownership or service requirements for Kalamazoo Promise.
But other communities’ programs include a combination of these criteria. Hammond, Ind., requires its College Bound Scholarship Program participants to live in owner-occupied housing and provide 40 hours of community service each year they receive funding.
New Haven, Conn., students must graduate with a cumulative 3.0 GPA to take advantage of the New Haven Promise scholarships. In Pittsburgh, promise participants need a minimum 2.5 GPA and a 90 percent attendance record to qualify.
The programs are funded through various sources: Hammond gets money through annual Horseshoe Casino allocations, El Dorado through a $50 million Murphy Oil gift and Pittsburgh through a $100 million commitment by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Yale University promised to cover the New Haven’s full program costs through the 2014 graduating class.
In Tupelo, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. proposed funding the program, called Tupelo Promise, with a 5-mill property tax increase. It would raise an estimated $2 million annually. That figure pales in comparison to the funding doled out by Kalamazoo, but it’s right in line with what Hammond pays each year.
Its College Bound Scholarship Program has an annual $2.5 million cap, which it hasn’t yet reached since its 2006 debut, said program coordinator Courtney Margraf. In that time, it has sent roughly 500 students to college, including 150 who entered during the current academic year.
Each student can get up to $8,600 annually, a figure based on the tuition rate at Indiana University at Bloomington. As that institution’s tuition increases, so too does the program’s annual payout, Margraf said.
Hammond leaders launched the program in part to reverse its population decline and entice people to remain and reinvest in the city. Margraf said it’s too early to make bold statements about the program’s success, but indicators are promising.
“At least 20 families have relocated here and purchased a home,” she said. “And we have renters who have purchased a home so their kids can take advantage of the program.”
Kalamazoo city officials also say it’s hard to measure their program’s success, citing the national recession and housing market collapse as overwhelming factors. But city Code Administration Manager Tim Meulenberg said he believes the program has, if nothing else, stabilized the community.
It’s actually done more than that, said Michelle Miller-Adams, a visiting professor at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who studies the Kalamazoo Promise and its community impact.
Miller-Adams pointed to the school district’s 20-percent enrollment increase since the program started, its bond issues, its new schools and teacher hires.
But she also said it put Kalamazoo in the national spotlight for industries.
“Site selectors are now looking at us,” she said. “And in that sense, it’s been a really valuable economic development tool.”
Because of Kalamazoo’s success, Miller-Adams said dozens of other communities nationwide also want to implement their own promise programs. Many pass, some fail.
Raising “the money is not enough; it’s half the deal,” she said. “The other half is community engagement, and alignment and support.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.