The Promise of Free College

April 2017
Ingrid Johnson

It seems strange, that of all the cities, towns, and communities across America, Kalamazoo, Michigan would be chosen to make history in education. The relatively small city with the funny name, famous for innovations in the pharmaceutical field and the producers of New York City’s checker cabs, put itself on the map by giving free college to all students in the city’s public school system. In 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise was announced and people were shocked. To this day, people are still shocked. Free college? Simply for graduating from KPS? The Kalamazoo Promise was created by anonymous, private donors to encourage economic growth in the city of Kalamazoo and stop the flood of families leaving the city and its school systems. As long a student enrolls in Kalamazoo Public Schools by 9th grade, they are eligible for 65 percent of their college tuition and fees paid for at any university or community college in the state of Michigan, and up to 100 percent if they have attended KPS from Kindergarten. As long as they graduate high school, there is one simple form to receive the Kalamazoo Promise for tuition at any college in Michigan. The results were powerful. For a city with over 30 percent of residents living below the poverty line (in 2006), the free college program, delivered in a simple and generous form, was a game changer (Kalamazoo County Health and Human Services, 2012). Researchers in Kalamazoo jumped on the project and in 2015, a study was released by a local think tank (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research) that indeed, the Kalamazoo Promise was positively impacting the schools and community of Kalamazoo in many ways.