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With Free Tuition, Mich. Students Hear 'You Are Going To College'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. This spring, we're joining our colleagues at Morning Edition to take a closer look at paying for college. So far in this series, we've talked about navigating the mountains of paperwork, whether working during school is a good idea, and if so, how much is too much. And we've also talked about the huge debt that many students face after graduation. But imagine if all those worries went away.

What if the city you lived in footed the bill for college? Kalamazoo, Michigan is doing that. In 2005, a group of anonymous donors pledged enough money to pay the tuition at any of Michigan's public universities and community colleges for every student who graduated from the district's public high schools.

They called it the Kalamazoo Promise. Nearly a decade later, that promise is bearing fruit and sometimes in unexpected ways. Here to tell us more is Erica Adams. The Kalamazoo Promise paid for her to attend Michigan State University. She graduated in 2012 and is now a foster care specialist for the state of Michigan. Erica, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ERICA ADAMS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Michelle Miller-Adams. She is a research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and author of the book "The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo." We believe it's the only book so far written about the Kalamazoo Promise. Thanks so much for joining us, Michelle Miller-Adams.

MICHELLE MILLER-ADAMS: Thank you, Michel. Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So I'm going to start with you. This is a very unique program for the United States - isn't it - in that it's not need-based. It's not merit-based. It's based on where you live, and it's designed to go on forever, presumably if the money holds up. So how did this begin? What did the donors have in mind?

MILLER-ADAMS: Well, it's hard to ask them because they're anonymous, and thus far, they haven't been willing to talk. But we can infer a lot about their intentions from the design of the program. They were clearly looking for the big move for a transformative investment that would change not only the school district that serves our city - which is a high-poverty school district that had been shrinking for many years, many decades in terms of enrollment - but also something that would transform the broader community.

MARTIN: And how so? By what, encouraging kids to go to college who wouldn't think that they could go...


MARTIN: ...Encouraging kids to go to more competitive schools? What were they hoping for to the degree that we could determine it?

MILLER-ADAMS: I think they were hoping for all of those things. I think they were also hoping to really strengthen and reinvigorate the school district that serves the urban core of our region.

And they were also seeking to make Kalamazoo a more attractive place for people to live and work, especially those people who value education. They wanted to make Kalamazoo stickier. That's a term we hear a lot - harder to leave, more welcoming to come to.

MARTIN: So, Erica Adams, you were a sophomore in high school when the Kalamazoo Promise launched. Do you remember how you felt when you heard it? I mean, did you think at the time it would have an effect on your life?

ADAMS: Yes, I was extremely excited. I had always knew that wanted to go to college. But it definitely just broadened all the opportunities as to where I could go. And it also kind of helped me to do exactly what I wanted to do rather than what was going to be feasible for me and what, you know, I could afford, like, as opposed to a community college or something of that nature.

MARTIN: That was going to be my next question. Did it change where you went to school, and did it change what you decided to study?

ADAMS: Absolutely. Before, I probably would've went to a university that was a little bit smaller where tuition would have been a bit cheaper or a community college. I also probably would've did nursing or something like that just because I know those are jobs where typically when you graduate, you can find jobs easily.

Programs are somewhat structured to where you can graduate in a quick time frame. So when the promise was announced, I was like, you know, Big Ten Universities, here I come. So it definitely completely changed everything else - actually able to do something that I like, which is working with people.

MARTIN: So you think that you were able to choose what you really wanted to do for your career, as opposed to worrying about having to get a job.

ADAMS: Exactly, and also to just go to a school that had, you know, one of the top 10 programs for, you know, what I was trying to go for in the nation.

MARTIN: Michelle Miller-Adams, you've been tracking the progress of the Kalamazoo Promise, as we mentioned, since it began. How does Erica's story fit in with the other students that you followed?

MILLER-ADAMS: It's a perfect illustration of some of the benefits of the promise that are not well-understood. We tend to focus on kids who weren't going to go to college and now can go to college. The reality of the impact is much more complex than that. Students are able to choose different colleges. We see this trading up phenomenon.

We sometimes see - I hate to call it trading down - but we see a shift in college preferences because of the requirement that you attend a public in-state institution. But, you know, that's quite good for the state, that more of our top students are being driven to public in-state institutions.

But we also see a great deal of freedom that students are experiencing in being able to follow their passion and most importantly graduating with either no or very low levels of debt. And that opens up a huge range of possibilities. That opens up the possibility of graduate school for a lot of students. So the impacts are really pretty subtle and nuanced.

MARTIN: You know, Erica, you were also telling us that it's made a difference in the college culture in school, if that makes sense. That - you were saying that when you were coming along, when you were growing up and going to school, the teachers really only started talking about college when it was SAT time. But now there's a college-going culture in the schools. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

ADAMS: Absolutely. You know, growing up, my junior and senior year, you know, they started to talk about it a little bit more when it was test-taking time. You know, just letting us know that, you know, in the counseling office you can get this fee waived for this application. In my job, I deal a lot with teenagers in the foster care system, and just the other day, I was at one of our middle schools.

And as soon as you walk into the office, there's a huge check on the wall. And it says I think, like, $50,000 on it, and it says, put your name here. And that's typical of all my school visits I do. The first thing you're hit with when you walk into the building is a banner saying, you are college promise eligible. You are going to college, rather than back when I was going to school, before the promise was announced, teachers weren't really asking, well, what school are you going to after graduation, or, you know, what are you going to major in? It was, what are your plans after graduation?

Whereas now, it's teachers telling you, like, hey, what school are you going to? So it completely just changed the mindset that I think a lot of our administrators have, our educators and our kids have in our community.

MILLER-ADAMS: And I would add that...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Michelle.

MILLER-ADAMS: ...That's even happening at the elementary school level. I have a daughter who's been in Kalamazoo Public Schools elementary school for about five years. And, yeah, that college-going culture and attitude and expectations penetrates all the way down to kindergarten.

MARTIN: Michelle, though, you were telling us that overall, though, the graduation and dropout rates have been slow to change. Why do you think that is?

MILLER-ADAMS: Yeah, I think that's one of the surprises that we find in the data. I think that we will see it change. This is a very long-term program. You pointed out in your introduction it's set up to continue in perpetuity. And, you know, we're only really eight years into it in terms of eligible classes.

The reality is that if you have things going on in your life, either academically or more importantly in your home life, that are keeping you from being successful in school, that have kept you from being with your grade level in terms of your achievement levels, the Kalamazoo Promise does not change those things. It doesn't take away a precarious home life or insecure housing or lack of access to food or really poor support in the home for your learning. But also, you know, particularly around the issue of dropping out, I think that one can predict - I mean, the data show that you can predict whether a student is going to drop out or not really quite early. It has to do with things that happen earlier in your academic career than, you know, what happens to hit in ninth grade or when you turn 16 and can drop out.

And the reality is that we are still a very high-poverty district in a high-poverty city. And kids, as Erica knows from her work, experience tremendous stresses. And so it's not that none of those kids can overcome those. But it is a lot harder for those students to really stay in school, be successful and make full use of the promise. Lots of them are trying.

MARTIN: Erica, final thought from you.

ADAMS: In my opinion, it has completely just changed just the outlook of a lot of kids in our community, even for my family. I mean, I come from a middle-class family, but, you know, $200,000 is - I mean, it's just a whopping number. And it really teaches the kids about paying stuff forward, just doing the right thing and, you know, coming back and doing things for the community because it's the right thing to do.

And 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, what class we are. The stipulations for the promise are not, you have to have a 3.5 GPA and all these extracurricular activities.

You have to just have, you know, the willpower to do it, and that's pretty much it. And I just think that that's an amazing blessing that, you know, somebody or a group of people put that much faith in this community. It's just a complete blessing.

MARTIN: Erica Adams is a beneficiary of the Kalamazoo Promise. She's now a foster care specialist for the state of Michigan. She joined us from member station WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan along with Michelle Miller-Adams who is a research fellow at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and author of the book "The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo." Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ADAMS: Thank you.

MILLER-ADAMS: It's been a pleasure. Thanks.

MARTIN: Just a reminder, you can weigh in with your own story or question about paying for college on Twitter at #PayingForCollege. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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