Can free college tuition save a city?

Minnesota has a hard time keeping kids in school. In one of the state’s largest districts, only about half of the students graduate. That’s not going to cut it. Ever. That’s simply raising the next generation of poverty and joblessness.

So a story on NPR this morning raises this interesting question: What if college was free?

That’s how it works in Kalamazoo, Mich., where donors contributed enough money that every student who stays in high school gets a college education.

Oh, and this also solves the crushing problem of student debt.

“I think it kind of just lets all the kids know, too, that there’s somebody out here that thinks that I’m worthy of having this education, regardless of my family situation [or] what class we are,” one beneficiary tells NPR’s Michel Martin.

  1. Listen How One Michigan City Is Sending Kids To College Tuition-Free

    April 16, 2014

It’s called the Kalamazoo Promise.

Politico identified the donors only as some “homegrown billionaires” who thought enough about the future of their city, that they gave something back. The Upjohn company, once a leading pharmaceutical company, was based in Kalamazoo before mergers and takeovers wiped it off the map. Locals figure some of the money came from its former owners and directors.

So what happened?

According to Politico, a quarter of the students in private and charter schools went back to public schools. People moved to Kalamazoo. Two new schools were built.

“We used to talk about what shoes we had on, now it’s who has the highest GPA and who can get into what school,” one student said. “Now everybody has the same status.”

In the class of 2010, 87 percent of the city’s 550 high school graduates were eligible for at least some help from the program. By last November, 80 percent of those kids had enrolled in college classes.

Most of the kids stayed in the Kalamazoo area.

Many of the rippling effects of the Promise are only now becoming clear. For starters, Kalamazoo is creating better high school students.

According to a 2012 study by Timothy Bartik of the Upjohn Institute and Marta Lachowska of Stockholm University, Kalamazoo’s black students have fared particularly well. Grade point averages for black students in the district—which averaged 2.0—inched up .2 percentage points one year after the Promise and .7 points by year three. AP enrollment surged 300 percent for minorities. Principals shortened in-school suspensions.

Simply put, “it improved student behavior,” says Bartik. In 2013, six years after the Promise, test scores had gone up on every standardized test imaginable. Meanwhile, with enrollment up roughly 23 percent since the program began, the district’s operating budgets have increased, too—in the face of deep education cuts across the state.

Last year Kalamazoo spent $131 million, up 28 percent from the $87 million spent the year the Promise program was announced.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though.

One in three high school students are still dropping out, most of them African-American males. The buoyant effect on the economy has been difficult to fine. Home prices are flat.

  • MrE85

    I have to give the “homegrown billionaires” credit. It sounds like a wonderful idea.

  • jon

    Anyone have stats on the crime rate since the program took effect? numbers I’m finding for the city suggest that their crime rate was more or less flat going back to 2000.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    Well, it’s not free. It’s paid for in a different way.

  • David

    This program can be part of a solution. No *one* idea or initiative will save any city.

  • Ralphy

    In some European
    countries, the public university is an extension of the public school system.
    Students’ tuition at public universities are covered, just as they are at
    public grade-schools and high-schools, as long as they are making progress
    towards a degree, be it a BA or a PhD. No, it’s not “free” –
    taxpayers pay for the education of their citizens, and taxpayers benefit by
    having a well educated population. These folks have come to understand that it
    is in their country’s best interest to have a highly educated work force. They
    have come to understand that a high school education is not an adequate
    education base to grow a nation’s economy. If the logic that justifies
    taxpayers paying for head-start, grade school, middle-school and high-school
    holds true, and the fact that a high-school education is not enough in the 22nd
    century, then doesn’t it make sense to extend our education cost coverage
    through college?

    • X.A. Smith

      At the same time, reducing the huge economic drag on the economy which are student loans.

    • Gayle

      I find it interesting that other countries (umm, China…) will pay for their students to attend school in the United States (or as Ralphy pointed out, at home), but we collectively won’t pay for our own young adults to continue their education. Maybe the US won’t need engineers or doctors in the future…but China, Norway, Germany … seem to think they will.