Promise programs are springing up in Rust Belt cities. But some are working better than others. Here's why.

Have you considered moving to Kalamazoo?

It’s nice! It’s about the size of Santa Fe or Youngstown, it has a couple universities, a fine cultural district. Sure it’s in the Rust Belt, so it’s shed much of its its industrial identity. But Pfizer -- owner since 2003 of the once mighty Upjohn pharmaceutical manufacturing company -- employs many people there. The city’s population is finally increasing after a long decline, and Kalamazoo is a famously cheap place to live. It’s also well situated -- only a couple hours’ drive west of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and less than three hours east of Chicago around Lake Michigan. Plus: do you like hockey?

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No? Still not interested?

Well let’s take this a step further. Let’s assume you’re a parent or that you may want to be a parent at some point in your life. And let’s also assume that you might have ambitions to send your child or children to college. What if the City of Kalamazoo offered to pay that tuition in full?

They've done just that with a program known as the Kalamazoo Promise.The decision to offer free college tuition for those who enroll in Kalamazoo’s school district from kindergarten through 12th grade has received its share of attention, and as many as 25 cities nationwide have either instituted or considered instituting a similar program. The program is funded entirely by anonymous donors. Just last month, a New York Times Magazine feature painted a visceral portrait of Kalamazoo and its schools, noting that since Kalamazoo began the Promise program in 2005, things are looking up. The write:

In the first year after the Promise, 1,000 additional students enrolled in the Kalamazoo schools. Altogether, the student population has increased by 2,450 students, or 24 percent. With every added student, the school district gets another $7,250 from the state. A new teacher can be hired for every additional 25 students; 92 have been hired so far. The district has been able to upgrade facilities and, for the first time since the 1970s, passed bond issues to build new schools.

But the results are not all positive. One-third of the students in Kalamazoo’s city schools dropout before graduation. And, as the Times article notes, a "disproportionate number of them are black males, of whom only about 44 percent graduate." Plus, it’s not clear that similar "place-based" college scholarship models can work elsewhere. 

A followup Times blog post, in fact, noted that New York City is probably too large and too skeptical to make a similar scholarship program work. "If you’re talking about an endowment of $25 billion," a philanthropic officer told the Times, "that’s more than the budget for the whole public school system."

And if you need info to fuel your own skepticism, take a look at Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Promise began in 2007 as an unfunded idea to offer college tuition to those who enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools. It gradually garnered support from private donors, foundations, and, most prominently, UPMC, which pledged $100 million to the program (in lieu of taxes).

RAND Corporation released a study last year (PDF), analyzing the Pittsburgh Promise’s progress since 2007.

While the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ enrollment numbers have “stabilized,” according to the study, there’s no indication that the Promise brought a significant number of new students into the city’s public school system. Of the surveyed people who did move into the city, however, the study found that “parents on average rated The Promise highest in importance [of] factors that influenced their decision to move....

Which is good. But why aren’t more people taking advantage of the program?

"Focus group students lacked clarity on the program’s eligibility requirements, the funding amounts available, and the post-secondary education institutions where Promise funds could be used," the study read. "This suggests that the program’s communication and outreach could be improved."

John Austin, Director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, says that’s a key point. The Kalamazoo Promise is simple and has remained consistent since the program’s inception: If a student attends public school in Kalamazoo for 12 years and graduates, the city will pay 100 percent of that student’s tuition and fees at any public college in Michigan.* (There’s a sliding scale for those who enroll fewer than 12 years.)

Pittsburgh’s promise isn’t so simple or consistent. Right now:

High school graduates are eligible for a Promise scholarship if they (1) graduate from a Pittsburgh public traditional or charter high school; (2) live in the district and have been residents of Pittsburgh continuously since at least 9th grade; (3) graduate from high school with a minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 2.5; (4) maintain a minimum of 90 percent attendance over the course of high school; and (5) qualify for entrance to any accredited two- or four-year public or private post-secondary degree program in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

And a lot of those requirements have changed over the years.

The GPA eligibility requirement was 2.0 initially, then it was 2.25 and now it’s 2.5. There wasn’t an attendance requirement when the program started, then it was set at 85 percent, now it’s 90 percent.

“You need a program that’s simple, blunt, and elegant,” Austin says, which is why the Kalamazoo Promise seems to have worked well in Kalamazoo though it’s been less successful in places such as Pittsburgh and New Haven. "The obscurity and opaqueness of some of these other college guarantees - which aren’t understood by everybody and not everybody qualifies - doesn’t become the economic development success it can be."

Furthermore, parents need to be comfortable with the school system itself before they commit to as little as four and as many as 12 years in a system.

Joanne Spence is one of those parents. Born in England, raised in Australia, Spence and her Pennsylvania-born husband lived for nearly two decades in a suburb closely bordering the City of Pittsburgh. Spence owns a nonprofit called Yoga in Schools, which operates in the city's classrooms. That's where she found out about the Pittsburgh Promise. At first she was skeptical -- "Is this too good to be true?" -- but a few things made her more willing to believe.

Her eldest daughter was preparing to enter high school, for one, in one of the state's largest and roughest suburban high schools. She was weighing whether they would be able to send their daughter and their two younger children to an expensive private school. Second, this was around this time UPMC made its pledge to the Promise.

After meeting the Promise's director, Saleem Ghubril, who had decades of community development experience in Pittsburgh, Spence and her husband gained more trust in the program. They found a house less then two miles from their suburban home, but inside the City of Pittsburgh. They moved in Sept. 2010. She says she has no regrets so far.

"It's a great thing that our kids will be able to graduate from college without being up to their eyeballs in debt," she says.

Having a family build that level of trust in a school system is important, says Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

"For most middle class parents with choices, I have to think the experience your child is going to have maturing in a school system and whether that school system prepares them for college will trump any level of financial resources offered by a city," says Berube. "School quality in the end is paramount."

So Kalamazoo’s dropout numbers can’t be helping the program all that much. Ditto for Pittsburgh’s public school system when steep declines in test scores emerge or someone’s accused of wrongdoing on the job.

“If I thought my child would suffer for 12 years in order to save $10,000 per year, a decade from now, I’m not taking that deal,” Berube says.

But that’s no reason to abandon Promise programs or dismiss them in other cities.

"Cities try all sorts of stupid economic development projects in an effort to grow jobs and grow residents," Berube says. "They build convention centers and hotels and they throw money at developers for stadiums when research has shown that none of those things have proven to provide any real long-term economic success."

What we do know from research, he says, is "that your human capital, your skill levels, and your educational levels are the strongest predictor of your long term economic performance."

Given that, are these good programs?

"Maybe," he says. "At least they’re aiming at the right thing. Whether they’re effective in growing that thing in the long run? We don’t know that yet."

* Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the eligibility requirements for the Kalamazoo Promise program.

Photo credit: archidea /Shutterstock

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