KALAMAZOO, Mich. — When Simon Boehme landed President Barack Obama as commencement speaker for his high school graduation last spring, he knew exactly what the president would highlight: the city's innovative $21.5 million college scholarship program, now being emulated across the U.S.
"America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo," Obama said at Boehme's commencement, praising the anonymous donors who started the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005 in this former manufacturing city of 73,000.
Already, 1,250 Kalamazoo public school graduates — 81 percent of those eligible — have taken advantage of free or vastly reduced tuition to any public college or university in Michigan.
Yet just 54 percent of those who received the first awards under the program are still in college or have graduated, a stark reminder that it will take more than money to achieve the president's ambitious goal of leading the world in college degrees by 2020.
"We took the first hurdle down (not having money for college) and now can see all the hurdles behind it," said Michelle Miller-Adams, a visiting scholar at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and the author of the first comprehensive study of the initiative.
Cities from Hammond, Ind., to New Haven, Conn., have launched similar programs at a time when, Obama frequently rues, the U.S. has fallen from first to ninth place in the world in the proportion of young people with college degrees.
In Pittsburgh's program, the percentage of scholarship recipients who return to their public four-year colleges after freshman year trails the state average of 81 percent by nearly 3 points, said Saleem Ghubril, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, which launched in 2007 with a $100 million commitment from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
As for community college students on Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, 70.3 percent return for their second years, about 10 points above the national average.
In Denver, half of the 199 students in the first class eligible for that city's
Promise-style program were still enrolled for the start of their fourth year of college, said Rana Tarkenton, the director of student services at the Denver Scholarship Foundation.
Kalamazoo Promise students must be enrolled full time and maintain C averages to keep their scholarships. The program's graduation rates are lowest at two-year colleges, as they are in the rest of the U.S: Only 33 percent of the Class of 2006 who attended community college had graduated by the fall of 2010, program statistics show. The following year's class didn't do much better.
"What we're seeing more clearly now is that we need to address the other hurdles," Miller-Adams said.
Nationally, getting students through college has long been a challenge: Only 59.5 percent of students who start bachelor's degrees finish in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Obstacles include insufficient academic and cultural preparation for higher education, said Stan Jones, the president of Complete College America, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
"It's especially hard for students who come from poor areas and don't have support networks," said Jones, one of the founders of Twenty-First Century Scholars, a Promise-style program founded in Indiana in the 1990s. "Just giving them the opportunity to go to college isn't enough. They need support once they get there: mentoring, ways for students to connect."
"The hardest adjustment for me is being able to manage my time, and being able to study effectively," said University of Michigan freshman Adwoa Bobo, a pre-med student on a Promise scholarship. "In high school, I was able to pass through without studying too much. In college, you cannot get good grades without taking notes and studying every night for each class and reading your books thoroughly"
Bobo thinks the high cost of housing, books and other needs also discourages students. Annual total costs at four-year public universities average $16,140, according to the College Board, a nonprofit association of 5,700 colleges and universities.
"I think that the reason why so many students have dropped out is because although tuition and fees are paid for, room and board is not," Bobo said. "These students still have to worry about books, computers and many other expenses."
Concern about the effectiveness of Promise-style programs hasn't slowed their growth. A group of volunteers in Milwaukee is trying to replicate the program in Wisconsin. The New Haven Promise, financed primarily by Yale University, announced an offer last month to pay the tuition of any student with at least a 3.0 grade-point average who wishes to attend a public college or university in Connecticut.
Kalamazoo is trying to figure out what else — beyond free tuition — students need to be successful in college, said Janice Brown, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise and former superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools.
"We are working to change a culture here," Brown said. "We're having conversations about what types of support systems we ... need for our students, both from the community and from families."
More than two-thirds of Kalamazoo students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a key poverty indicator. About 64 percent graduate from high school in four years. Civic leaders in Kalamazoo have high hopes that the Promise program will widen the pool of high school and college graduates in a city where two-thirds of people 25 and older don't have college degrees, according to census data.
The former paper-mill stronghold is home to Western Michigan University, which enrolls 25,000 students, and its unemployment rate of 10.6 percent is about 2 percentage points lower than the state average in recession-torn Michigan. The city is still struggling to recover from the loss of hundreds of pharmaceutical and auto-industry jobs in the 1990s.
Since 2006, 56 Kalamazoo Promise graduates have obtained four-year bachelor's degrees and 21 have graduated with associate degrees. The Promise gives students 10 years to complete degrees.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, said the Obama administration welcomed the proliferation of Promise-style programs, even if early results were mixed.
"These partnerships are an opportunity," Hamilton said. "We recognize there is a pipeline issue. Not enough kids are graduating ... college- and career-ready, so we have to do what we can to make them well-prepared."
Boehme, who's now a freshman studying political science and business at the University of Michigan, said the program had at the very least changed the conversation in his hometown of Kalamazoo.
"I don't exactly know what it was like before the Promise, but now everybody in high school is talking about where they are going to college," Boehme said.
(Liz Willen contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.)
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