Free College: The Ultimate Game Changer

October 10, 2012

A few Sundays ago in the New York Times Magazine, former NCF Fellow Ted Fishman wrote on the Kalamazoo Promise.  As an undergraduate student attending Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo when the Promise was announced, it was an amazing study in what happens when 500 or so high school seniors win the college lottery.

The Kalamazoo Promise is every parent’s and ambitious student’s dream.  If you spend kindergarten through twelfth grade in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, you can attend any of Michigan’s 43 public colleges or universities at no cost, courtesy of a small group of completely anonymous donors. Beginning with the KPS Class of 2006, the Promise has paid for more than 2,400 students to attend college.

In a chat I had over the phone with Janice Brown, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Promise, she said that the Promise, in partnership with the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo is “creating a framework for community transformation.”

What does this mean for Kalamazoo? A great potential for long term economic growth and prosperity. This is a great example of something my NCF colleague Michael Hendrix wrote about in the most recent edition of BHQ, an excellent piece on what makes some cities be “enterprising cities.” As he wrote, “Cities need to continuously build up their supply of human capital in order to succeed.” 

From Ted Fishman’s NYT Magazine article:

“It would also mark the start of an important social experiment. From the very beginning, [Janice] Brown, the only person in town who communicates directly with the Promise donors, has suggested that the program is supposed to do more than just pay college bills. It’s primarily meant to boost Kalamazoo’s economy. The few restrictions — among them, children must reside in the Kalamazoo public-school district and graduate from one of its high schools — seem designed to encourage families to stay and work in the region for a long time. The program tests how place-based development might work when education is the first investment.”

“Other communities invest in things like arenas or offer tax incentives for businesses or revitalize their waterfronts,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, which is located in the city. “The Kalamazoo Promise tries to develop the local economy with a long-term investment in human capital that is intended to change the town from the bottom up.” In this regard, the Promise can be seen as an exorbitant ante, staked by private funds, that calls to Kalamazoo’s better angels. It stokes hometown pride, prods citizens to engage and pulls businesses and their leaders into the public sphere. To date, Miller-Adams says, Kalamazoo’s Promise has inspired donors in 25 other cities and towns around the United States — including Pittsburgh, New Haven and El Dorado, Ark. — to start, or consider starting, similar programs.”

I'd like to extend a personal thank you to Ted Fishman and the many others who have highlighted the Promise and the City of Kalamazoo's efforts to use education as a tool in economic development.  If you have the chance, take a trip to Kalamazoo, you won't be disapointed.