How Boston and Kalamazoo, MI are keeping “the Promise”

Kalamazoo, MI has made a promise to its children. Thanks to the generosity of anonymous donors, Kalamazoo’s kids are going to college, tuition free. At a time when many believe we are “bowling alone” and civic vitality is on the decline, this Promise optimistically states that Kalamazoo’s collective fates are tied together.  Indeed, this isn’t just a gift to the school system’s roughly 500 annual graduates and their families – it’s a strong statement about the kind of community Kalamazoo wants to be, and an economic development strategy that can rally a community together around a shared goal of college attainment and economic competitiveness.  Knowing that the cost of college will not be a barrier helps students and families build the aspiration and expectation that college is within their grasp. The promise of college is drawing families to Kalamazoo’s schools, driving reforms in the school system, and offering an attractive community for businesses who need college educated workers.

Elizabeth Pauley Yet, even with the tuition paid for, not all young people in Kalamazoo are making it all the way to college graduation.  More than 500 students graduate annually from Kalamazoo’s public schools; but in the seven years of the Promise, only about 500 students total have completed their degrees.  And as in other communities, including Boston, the academic performance and the graduation rates of Kalamazoo’s young men of color lag behind black women and white students of both genders.

It’s a story Boston knows all too well, and a situation we have made a pledge to address.  Boston has led the nation in sending kids onto post-secondary education programs, sending more than 70% of its graduates onto college, but only about 40% of those students complete a degree by their 25 th birthday.  That translates into about 800 or so college graduates, out of a graduating high school class of over 3000.  And as in Kalamazoo, the students who aren’t making it are largely low-income, kids of color, and first generation college-goers.

When faced with this reality, Mayor Thomas Menino charged the Boston Public Schools, the Boston Foundation , area institutions of higher education, and local nonprofits to commit themselves to doubling college completion rates.  While Boston hasn’t provided the free tuition to its graduates, it has developed a community plan to get students “ready, in, and through” college.

The program, Success Boston , is a statement about our deep civic commitment to each other.  It’s also a statement about our economy: Boston’s future depends on a skilled and knowledgeable workforce.

And as in Kalamazoo, while finances are often cited as the reason why students stop out of college, the reality is more complex.  College students need to be healthy, safe, and fed in order to succeed.  And, to successfully navigate the transition between high school and college, students need a set of non-cognitive skills to meet the challenges they will face: self-management skills like time management, study skills, persistence, and the ability to seek help in a timely manner.

To change the outcomes, young people need a strong academic preparation, and a solid foundation of self-management skills, paired with a plan for paying for college.  And, when challenges arise, students need to be able to access critical supports for urgent needs, whether those needs are financial, social or personal.

The Kalamazoo Promise and Success Boston have set the right goal: to increase educational attainment of young people for the good of the young people, and the community at large. Both efforts have shown us that dramatically increasing completion rates is complicated, and won’t be solved solely by making college free.  Removing financial barriers has to be part of the solution, but that must be combined with an “all hands on deck” community approach that helps students get ready for, transition into, and succeed in college.  Only then will we deliver on the promise that Kalamazoo and Boston have made to their children.

Elizabeth Pauley joined the Boston Foundation as a Senior Program Officer. Elizabeth focuses on the Education sector . Before joining the Boston Foundation, she began her career in the classroom as a teacher and moved into education administration at the MA Department of Education.