One city tried the tuition-free college experiment and got unexpected results.
KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In 2005, caught in a spiral of urban decay and a falling population, Kalamazoo embarked on a bold experiment to save itself. It would give local students free college tuition.
The program, funded by anonymous donors who pay the bill each year, kicked off a free-college movement that has gained traction across the U.S. More than 300 cities and states have some variety of free-tuition program, although most aren’t as generous. Many of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders support some form of free college as part of their campaigns.
Thirteen years after Kalamazoo’s program went into effect, some results are in. College enrollment has risen. Kalamazoo’s economy is stronger. So is a sense of community in a city that once had nearly lost hope.
Yet city leaders have found the benefits of the Kalamazoo Promise, as the free college plan is known, go only so far. Just 38% of students who finished high school between 2006 and 2012 earned a college degree or certificate, according to the Upjohn Institute, a nonprofit research center that has studied the program. This was up only slightly from the 34% average for the three years before the program existed.
Among black students, just 23% from the classes of 2006 through 2012 earned a college credential, compared with 22% before the program.
The percentage of Kalamazoo residents living in poverty, at 31%, is higher than it was at the start of this century, when the share living in families at or below the federal poverty threshold stood at 24%, Census data show.
“It’s like an onion,” said Brad Hershbein of the Upjohn Institute. “You take away the outer layer—financial need. Once that’s gone you see these other layers, or barriers, are left. The inner layers are problems you wouldn’t have known are a big issue. ”Among them are high rates of single-parent households, teen pregnancy and homelessness.
In Kalamazoo, a city of 77,000 two hours west of Detroit, factories supported the economy throughout the 1900s, producing Checker cabs, Gibson guitars, paper products and medical devices. General Motors had a plant on the outskirts of town. A local pharmaceutical company, Upjohn Co., was the inventor of the friable pill, or medicine that can dissolve in the stomach.
The population began to shrink in the 1970s as some white families headed for the suburbs and factories hurt by globalization closed or moved. GM shut its plant in the 1990s. Pfizer Inc. bought Upjohn and downsized it. By the early 2000s, brick buildings downtown sat empty and schools suffered along with the tax base.
Spurring the free-college movement is anxiety over the cost of tuition, which has risen at more than double the inflation rate since 1990, while student debt has tripled since late 2006.
A handful of wealthy residents approached the public schools’ superintendent at the time, Janice Brown, saying they wanted to turn the city’s fortunes around through education. The thinking was free tuition for city students would lure families back, give households a financial boost, form a skilled workforce and reduce unemployment.
“They believed investing in higher education would make a really big bang,” said Dr. Brown.
The donors, remaining anonymous, insisted that all students in the public schools be eligible. “It is not just a handout for the poor,” she said.
The program, still in effect, covers 100% of tuition at any public college and 15 private colleges in the state for a child who began in the local school system in kindergarten. The subsidy is reduced on a sliding scale for those who enroll later, down to 65% of tuition for students who enter local schools in the ninth grade.
Students who accept the aid must maintain at least a 2.0 grade in three-quarters of classes to continue to receive the subsidy; they’re not obligated to serve the city or live there after their college years.
Colleges where Kalamazoo students enroll send their tuition bills to Dr. Brown, who passes them on to the donors. Since the program took effect in June 2006, they have paid $124 million in tuition subsidies for 5,735 students, according to its administrators.
Slightly more than half were from families with incomes low enough that the students received free or reduced-price lunch in high school, according to the Upjohn Institute.
Hundreds of families moved to Kalamazoo in the first year after the program began, most from within the region and other parts of Michigan but some from out of state. The school district’s population jumped by about 1,000 students, or 10%, in the year after creation of the program.
Population BoomEnrollment in Kalamazoo public schools rosesharply after the city announced the ‘Promise’program of free college tuition.K – 12 public school enrollmentSource: Upjohn Institute using Michigan state data
Housing developers who had avoided the city started lining up permits to build. Schools got a financial boost, since their share of state funding depends partly on the number of students enrolled.
At the same time, some neighboring school districts lost students and funding, and a nearby charter school closed, under pressure from the move of families to Kalamazoo.
Sheri Welsh and Richard Welsh, Kalamazoo parents of two young children, had been looking to move to a bigger home in the suburbs. Instead, they stayed and spent $30,000—money they had set aside for tuition—upgrading their 1930s Tudor-style house in the city. Ms. Welsh expanded her executive-recruiting firm.
Their daughter, Alexis Welsh, graduated in 2012 near the top of her high-school class and went on to the University of Michigan, where the Promise program covered a total of $40,000 in tuition.
“I am so, so thankful,” said Ms. Welsh, now in graduate school at Idaho State University studying to be a physician assistant. “I would not have been able to go to the University of Michigan without it.” She probably would have started at a nearby state college or a community college to save money, she said.
Ms. Welsh, now 24, has about $54,000 in student debt, because the program didn’t cover living expenses at Michigan or her graduate-school tuition. She believes the debt is manageable given what she’ll earn as a physician assistant.
The free-tuition program also made Ms. Welsh feel attached to the Kalamazoo community, she said. She plans to move back to serve Spanish-speaking families.
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Students from the 2006 and 2007 high-school classes who went on to earn bachelor’s degrees received an average of about $37,300 in tuition subsidies, according to Upjohn. The average subsidy was about $19,700 among everyone eligible for the Promise program, including those who started college but dropped out.
Tuition BillAverage tuition aid received by Kalamazoo students within six years of high-school graduation. Classes of2006 and 2007:Source: Upjohn InstituteNote: Lower-income students are those eligible by family income for free or reduced-cost lunches. Mid/high students arethose not eligible.
Those receiving the most dollars from the program have been female, white and from middle- and upper-income families, according to the data from Upjohn. It said that was because those groups are far more likely to go to a four-year college, rather than a community college, and to graduate.
College enrollment has soared across all racial groups. Among all students who graduated from a Kalamazoo public high school from 2006 through 2017, 75% enrolled in college within six months, versus a national average of about 67% and only 58% in Kalamazoo before the program, according to the Upjohn Institute.
Percentage of Kalamazoo students enrolled in college within six months of high-school graduation in 2003-05, before the ‘Promise’ free-tuition plan, and in 2006 – 2017.
‘06 – ‘17
Note: Lower-income students are those eligible by family income for free or reduced-cost lunches. Mid/high students are those not eligible.
Source: Upjohn Institute
But when Upjohn looked at how many students from the 2006 through 2012 high-school classes earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of their graduation, it found the rate for white students, 46%, was triple the rate for black students.
And among high-school graduates from mid/high-income households—defined as those not eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches—the percentage of students earning some kind of college credential jumped to 56% from 43%, a contrast to the nearly unchanged figure for black students. The institute’s Mr. Hershbein said this is where the other layers of the onion—the societal problems preventing students from being prepared for college—are revealed.
Testing the Promise
Percentage of Kalamazoo students who earned a bachelor’s degree within six years of high-school graduation in 2003-05–before the ‘Promise’ free-tuition plan–and in 2006 -2012.
‘06 – ‘12
Note: Lower-income students are those eligible by family income for free or reduced-cost lunches. Mid/high income students are those not eligible.
Source: Upjohn Institute
About 55% of children in Kalamazoo come from single-parent households, U.S. Education Department figures show. In recent years, as many as 7% of the city’s public-school students were homeless, twice the national average, also based on Education Department data. The teen pregnancy rate in Kalamazoo County is nearly 50% higher than the national rate, according to state and federal data.
Mr. Hershbein said such problems undermine students’ ability to persist in college even with tuition costs covered. Some drop out to take care of family members. Others weren’t academically prepared for college and are overwhelmed when they get there, he said.
Mr. Hershbein said his research tells a more encouraging story. College graduation rates among minorities have indeed been flat in Kalamazoo. But they fell in other Michigan cities with similar demographics in the most recent recession and early in the expansion, he said.
His research shows that taking other variables into account—including gender, household income, high school attended and state of the economy—the Promise program has had a sizable effect in getting minorities to enroll in college and earn a credential.
Marcel Coleman Jr., 19, grew up in a family where his mother worked two jobs, as hairdresser and postal employee, to raise six children. He said he wouldn’t even have thought of applying to Michigan State University but for the free-tuition program.
Now he is entering his junior year there, studying physiology and planning to go to medical school. He works two jobs and gets enough financial aid to cover living expenses, which the Promise program doesn’t provide.
Mr. Coleman, who is black, will be the first in his family to earn a four-year degree. “There’s so much pressure on me. But thankfully I get to go here for free,” he said.
He doesn’t know the identity of the donors paying his tuition, but he thinks about them. “It’s amazing to know that somebody in the 1% cares enough about the next generation of leaders that they made a fund for it,” he said.
Public-school leaders try to get more minorities to follow his path by describing college as a necessity.
In kindergarten, students sign “Promise” cards as parents and grandparents surround them, pledging to do their part to become college-ready. In sixth grade, they tour the local Western Michigan University. In high school, they navigate hallways plastered with pennants of Michigan colleges signed by local graduates who attended them.
For every Marcel Coleman there are two or three students who receive tuition subsidies and don’t finish. At the most popular college destination for the city’s students—Western Michigan and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, or KVCC—enrollment boomed by hundreds of students after the program took effect, but most eventually dropped out. Across the U.S., about a quarter of full-time community-college students graduate within three years, according to the Education Department.
Caitlyn Moon, 19, enrolled in KVCC last year right after high school. Between the Promise program and federal grants, her expenses were covered. But she felt aimless, she said, and was battling depression. Within a few months, she left.
Ms. Moon said she had enrolled only because that was the message delivered by the Promise and her family. “A lot of what we’re taught is ‘go to college, go to college,’ and not ‘go to college for this reason,’ ” she said. She now works at a coffee shop making $9.75 an hour.
The tuition program gives students 10 years to use their subsidies, and Ms. Moon is open to going back to college eventually. “I’d need to figure out why I would, other than just ‘you need a degree to function,’ ” she said.
To help students like her, program administrators sent KVCC additional money to hire counselors several years ago. One of them, Monteze Morales, said that some of the students she counsels don’t know what they want to study, or they may not have been prepared for college-level work. Others are single parents struggling to cover living expenses.
“They’ll often say, ‘I have to work, I’m homeless, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ ” she said.
Ms. Morales meets with students individually several times a semester. Sometimes she tells them they need to open their syllabus, read their assigned books and show up on time. Other times, she puts them in touch with social services.
“The challenges that people bring with them to education because of poverty don’t just go away because we say we’re going to pay for college education,” said Bob Jorth, the Kalamazoo Promise’s executive director.
KVCC leaders say retention and graduation rates have improved since counselors were hired.
This year, the Promise’s marketing has emphasized vocational college. Administrators hope marginal students will be less likely to drop out of such programs because they are shorter.
The change also responds to demand in the local economy. Labor Department data show unemployment in the area that includes Kalamazoo and nearby Portage stood at 3.1% in April, without seasonal adjustments, below the national average. The fastest job growth is in mining, logging and construction.
On a recent day, three manufacturing firms called the head of a program at KVCC that teaches trade skills asking if it had any students available to fill jobs.
Though its economy isn’t as strong as nearby Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo is humming with activity, and residents say they’re sure the Promise is one reason. Downtown is filled with restaurants, art stores and a wine bar. It was opened this year by a young couple, including a Promise recipient who dropped out of college.