By Hannah Engler
“It’s become a college-bound town,” says University of Michigan at Ann Arbor freshman Emily Spilman of her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Emily, who began her engineering degree at the University of Michigan last fall, is one of the many students whose tuition is covered under the Kalamazoo Promise, a four-year scholarship granted to students who graduated from Kalamazoo’s Public Schools.
The Kalamazoo Promise works like this: a student must attend at least their high school years in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, graduate from a Kalamazoo public high school, and reside within the city limits. If a student meets those parameters, 4 years or 130 credits of their tuition at a college in the state of Michigan will be completely paid for out of a fund set up by anonymous donors. This scholarship is redeemable for up to ten years after high school graduation, and applies to public and private colleges, universities, and community colleges.
According to research from the Brookings Institution, the estimated effects of the Promise are significant: the chance of students enrolling in any college within six months of high school graduation increases by 14 percent, and the chance of students enrolling in a 4-year college increases by 34 percent. The Promise also motivates Kalamazoo residents to remain in the local area. Emily said that “at times, it might have been much easier for my family to move so my dad could be closer to work, but the Promise was definitely an incentive for my family to stay in Kalamazoo. It probably means something, also, that through all my years of school after the Promise was introduced, I never had one friend who moved out of the district.”
Emily’s older sister, Elizabeth Spilman, also attended the University of Michigan and graduated in April with a B.A. in History and Art History. Both Emily and Elizabeth agree that going to college for free has drastically affected their college experience, from their fields of study to extracurriculars. Elizabeth says that with the burden of paying back student loans lifted, she has been able to follow her passion for studying history, a passion she developed as a student in Kalamazoo public schools. She has also dedicated time during all four years as an undergraduate to creative projects like the Every Three Weekly, the University of Michigan’s satirical newspaper. “These are things I would not have been able to do if I had to work during the school year,” says Elizabeth, adding that she can’t overstate the value of her liberal arts education: “I’ve grown so much, from my writing to my critical thinking skills.” When asked about her post-graduation plans, she says that grad school is definitely on the horizon. “Graduate school has been made far more possible by having a totally free undergraduate education,” she said.
Emily says that the Promise has also given her a greater appreciation for what her friends must do in order to afford college, and that she feels lucky that she can dedicate so much time to her schoolwork instead of multiple jobs. She says that she is still figuring out how to maximize her time in college, but she’s looking forward to finding the student organization to which she can volunteer, just like her sister.
Both students agree that the Promise’s main contribution to their academic lives is the ability to express their individuality and follow their own paths, without the added pressures of financial strain. Furthermore, the Spilman sisters emphasize how the Promise has revitalized Kalamazoo, within families, the school district, and the general community. “In high school, there was always this sense of ‘you can’t waste this opportunity,’” says Elizabeth. “We were, and are, a part of a very hopeful and supportive community because we were guaranteed the opportunity to go to college.”
Emily adds that the Promise is building generations of college-educated people in Kalamazoo, and says that she’d consider moving back: “If I stayed in Michigan after graduation, I would be really tempted to settle in Kalamazoo. Even if I didn’t go back right away, I would still have to consider raising a family there…Kalamazoo is evolving into such a beautiful and vibrant city.”
When asked what they would say to another community considering implementing something like the Kalamazoo Promise, the sisters’ message was clear: a college education should a right for all, not just a privilege afforded to some. Elizabeth noted that if a community has the means to set up a Promise, to do so is an “imperative.” Gesturing to her sister, Elizabeth says “we’re both smart, dedicated, good critical thinkers. That should be all it takes to go to college.”