With the price of a college education climbing more each year, there are quite a lot of ideas being thrown around for how to make it affordable. Loan forgiveness, increasing access to loans, and free college for all are just a few of the suggestions we’ve seen. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Josh Mitchell and Michelle Hackman reports on the experience of one city whose approach was a bit different: free college tuition for public high school graduates. The results surprised many, and offer insight into challenges that many of our students are facing in their own journeys toward a postsecondary credential.

In 2006 a group of anonymous donors created the “Kalamazoo Promise.” Any public school student is eligible, and the Promise will pay for 100% of the tuition at a public college in Michigan and at 15 private colleges for a child who began in the public schools in Kindergarten. [The amount paid for students who began later is based on a sliding scale.] They must maintain a 2.0 GPA in 75% of their classes.

  • One important point is that the Promise Program only covers tuition, not living expenses. While this is a very generous program, in practice some students have had to take out loans or otherwise struggle to cover living expenses.

And that’s it. The Promise Program is anything but onerous in its qualifying factors. Since its inception, over 5,700 students have benefitted from the Promise program, and $124M has been paid out.

So what’s been the effect of the Kalamazoo Promise Program?

Since the mid-2000’s, Kalamazoo has seen an increase in college enrollment. 75% of Kalamazoo public high school students enroll in postsecondary education, compared to the national average of 67%. Before the Promise program, that figure was 58% for Kalamazoo. The graduation rate has increased by 4 percentage points, from a previous 3-year average of 34% to 38%. These are positive measures of successful outcomes for Kalamazoo’s students.

But when researchers at the Upjohn Institute, which has studied the Promise Program, dug a little deeper into the outcomes, they noticed that progress wasn’t evenly distributed across Kalamazoo’s students. This held especially when the researchers looked at income and race/ethnicity. Black students in particular didn’t see an increase in graduation rates — 23% for the Promise program compared to 22% previously. For these students, even when tuition was no longer a factor, there were still barriers to their successful progress through college and attainment of a credential. As Brad Hershbein of the Upjohn Institute puts it:

“It’s like an onion….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. ”


These societal problems that impact college attendance of the Kalamazoo students, their persistence and graduation, include poverty, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, and single parent households. Students facing one (or several) of these often need to drop out of college to care for family members. They may not be academically prepared for a college curriculum. Along the same lines, they may not have the time management skills to be able to succeed.

This case study has implications for student success at other higher education institutions:

  • What’s the socioeconomic profile of your students?
  • What’s the profile of your students who are retained compared to those who leave?
  • Are there differences in gender? In academic preparedness? In race/ethnicity?
  • Are more or less of them first-generation college students?
  • How do your students who are single parents fare?

Let’s say that one notices some significant differences. What’s next? This is where a team approach can really produce results. Connect students to the a local food pantry — maybe your campus already has one. Direct academically struggling students to the advising center. There they can avail themselves of tutoring, of study skills and time management training. The number of students arriving on campus with mental health issues has increased in the past 5 years. Does a struggling student need the resources of the health clinic?

“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.


Citation: “Does Free College Work? Kalamazoo Offers Some Answers,” Wall Street Journal, June 28, 2019, Josh Mitchell and Michelle Hackman

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