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College Promise Turning Schools, Town Around

Opinion By DAVID MEDINA

February 27, 2008

Somewhere over the rainbow, there's a magic place called Kalamazoo, where you can earn a college scholarship just for living there.

It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black, white, gifted or average.

Sixty-five to 100 percent of your tuition at any of the 44 colleges run by the state of Michigan will be paid, depending on how long you went to the Kalamazoo public schools before high school graduation. Students with four years of high school receive 65 percent. K-12 graduates get the full boat.

Scholarship recipients have 10 years to earn their degrees, so long as they maintain a passing average. There are no complicated forms to fill out, no tax returns to submit; just a one-page application.

Hartford's schoolchildren should be so blessed.

There really is a Kalamazoo, although it wasn't always a magic place. Until 2005, it was a largely low-income, largely nonwhite area with high unemployment and low business investment. Property values scraped bottom and corporations couldn't attract enough educated employees from within or around Kalamazoo.

As Kalamazoo's population declined, the school district's enrollment dipped to half of its capacity. The achievement gap between nonwhite students and their white suburban counterparts was cavernous. Even good students had a hard time believing that going to school mattered.

Sound familiar?

One day, the wizards of Kalamazoo, a group of its wealthiest inhabitants, gathered to conjure up a fast, sure way of reviving Kalamazoo's economy. They kicked around many ideas. None guaranteed the speedy change they wanted.

Suddenly, the wizards had an inspiration. Rather than build convention centers and science museums, why not lure new settlers with college scholarships based on residency?

And so, the wizards established a private endowment to do just that called The Kalamazoo Promise. And their website says they funded it in perpetuity.

No one knows who the wizards are. But word of their simple but ingenious idea soon spread across the planet. About 1,300 new students from 32 states and nine foreign countries registered in Kalamazoo public schools since the first scholarships were handed out in 2006 the largest enrollment increase in 35 years.

White student enrollment rose by 250, the first upsurge since the 1980s. Although there are no statistics on the Promise's effect on the achievement gap, Kalamazoo did see a 43 percent rise in the graduation rate among African Americans. And 500 students who would have dropped out in a typical year stayed in school instead.

About 600 Promise students attend college today. Almost all are keeping up their grades. The Promise has even fueled demands among parents for more rigorous course work.

The impact on Kalamazoo's economy has been just as mind-blowing. Ronald Kitchens, CEO of Kalamazoo's economic development agency, Southwest Michigan First, says home sales rose 6 percent after the Promise was launched, as the region around Kalamazoo experienced a 10 percent decline. Home prices rose 3.6 percent, compared with a 1.4 percent drop regionally.

Moreover, 200 housing units have gone up since 2006 and another 400 are on the way. The vacancy rate for rental apartments has shriveled thanks to an influx of families taking up residence there until they buy a home. Hardly a week goes by that Kitchens doesn't get an inquiry from a business looking to relocate in Kalamazoo.

More than a dozen cities have set up variations of the Promise. Not all are as straightforward as the original. Some use government money. Others set limits on the length and amount in their Promise fund.

State Rep. Kelvin Roldan of Hartford is among those who has fallen in love with the idea. Who wouldn't? Roldan has proposed a bill to grant Connecticut municipalities the option of creating their own Promise funds through bond sales.

He persuaded the General Assembly's Black and Latino Caucus to make the bill a legislative priority and got the Higher Education Committee to schedule hearings on it.

Imagine what the Promise could bring to Hartford truly voluntary racial integration, rapidly improved graduation rates, far fewer dropouts, a vanishing achievement gap, more residents, construction, soaring homeownership and property values, increased commercial investment and a steady crop of homegrown workers to fill corporate jobs.

It doesn't get much better than that.

David Medina is an editorial writer for The Courant and a member of the Courant Editorial Board.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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