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Here’s a way to get students interested in higher education: Pay their way. The Kalamazoo Promise is one of the leading programs exploring just how to do that. The project pays up to 100 percent of tuition at state public schools for graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools in Michigan.

Here’s how it works: Students enrolled in the district since at least the 9th grade can get 65 percent of their tuition covered through the program. The percent increases on a sliding scale—up to 100 percent—for students enrolled since kindergarten. Once in college, students must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and be enrolled in at least 12 credits. “It’s quite an incentive,” says Bob Jorth, the program’s executive administrator.

The program was announced in November 2005, and students in the class of 2006 were the first to be eligible. Although Jorth says it’s too early to judge the program’s success, attendance at teacher conferences is up approximately 45 percent and more families are coming to school events. There is also anecdotal evidence that discipline problems are down. The Kalamazoo Promise may also prevent enrollment from continuing to decline if students chose to stay in the district rather than transfer to charter or private schools.

But Jorth is quick to point out that the program’s benefactors, all of whom have opted to remain anonymous, view The Kalamazoo Promise first and foremost as an economic development program for the city, with a population of approximately 77,000 located between Detroit and Chicago. “It’s investing in the most basic infrastructure, which is people,” Jorth said. “It’s a whole new take on economic development. That’s what’s creating such a buzz.”

Get the Cash in Place
In all likelihood Pittsburgh Public Schools wishes it also had a group of anonymous donors lined up. The 34,000-student district, perhaps the largest so far to embark on a similar program, announced The Pittsburgh Promise this past December. The plan was revealed earlier than expected after word began to leak out.

But the money to fund the The Pittsburgh Promise has not been pouring in. Superintendent Mark Roosevelt estimates the program needs approximately $5 million to start and as much as $20 million a year by the time it’s up and running. So far, only the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has contributed a symbolic $10,000.

Roosevelt is optimistic that the funding will come. “It’s the kind of thing that’s pretty hard to be against,” he said. But perhaps he’s underestimating the importance of fundraising. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, representatives from some of Pittsburgh’s largest foundations said that neither the city nor the school district has asked for donations or provided details about how the scholarship program would work.

About the Author

Dan Nephin is a writer living in Pittsburgh.

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