KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
We at MORNING EDITION, along with our colleagues at NPR's TELL ME MORE, have been examining how Americans pay for college. We've heard about rising tuition and also the huge debts many students are piling up. In one American city, high school seniors who have spent four years in public school are guaranteed a big scholarship. And for many, it will cover their full tuition.
NPR's Michel Martin has more.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What if you didn't have to worry about student loans or big tuition bills because the city you've 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. The Kalamazoo Promise paid for Erica Adams to attend Michigan State University. She graduated in 2012, and is now a foster care specialist for the State of Michigan. She described a recent visit to a Kalamazoo middle school.
ERICA ADAMS: 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.
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 have went with a university that was a little bit smaller where tuition would have been a bit cheaper, or a community college. I also probably would have did nursing or something like that, just because I know those are jobs where typically, when you graduate, you could find jobs easily.
Programs are somewhat structured to where you can graduate in a quick timeframe. So when The Promise was announced, I was like, you know, Big Ten Universities, here I come. So it definitely completely changed everything. I was 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: A Kalamazoo resident, Michelle Miller-Adams, is the author of a new book about the program, "The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo." She believes that these anonymous donors had goals that went beyond the success of individual students.
MICHELLE MILLER-ADAMS: 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: 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. It 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 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. 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. 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, 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, 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.
And 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 somebody or a group of people put that much faith in this community. It's just a complete blessing.
MARTIN: That's Erica Adams, a beneficiary of the Kalamazoo Promise. She's now a foster care specialist for the state of Michigan. We also heard from Michelle Miller-Adams, 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.
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GREENE: That was our colleague Michel Martin, the host of NPR's TELL ME MORE. Now according to the Kalamazoo Promise, about 90 percent of eligible high school graduates enroll in college. There's more about the Kalamazoo Promise and a lot more about paying for college, at our website, npr.org.
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GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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