May 18, 2012
In 2005 Kalamazoo, like many mid-sized cities in America’s “rust belt”, was visibly fading, having gradually lost jobs, home values and tax revenues.
On November 10 of that year. a meeting of the Kalamazoo School Board opened. Michelle Brown, the Superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools, stepped to the podium. Brown was about to reveal a closely held secret that she hoped would revolutionize the lives of her students and reach beyond them to the city itself.
A group of anonymous donors had funded a scholarship program to be known as the “Kalamazoo Promise”. Under its terms, any student who lived within the school district, attended its public schools and graduated from one of the district’s public high schools would be eligible for a scholarship paying all tuition and mandatory fees for four years at any Michigan public college or university, or at a community college until attaining a certificate. A student would have ten years to complete the degree. And the program was designed to continue long into the future.
The announcement made headlines around the nation. Nothing like it had been seen before.
But then Kalamazoo has always been a bit different. Unlike most Michigan cities, it’s major employers were pharmaceutical and paper manufacturers; its only car company was Checker Motors, which produced taxis.
Today, pharmaceuticals are still a major piece of the local economy, as are medical devices. Paper manufacturing is pretty much gone. And Checker Motors closed in 2009.
And from the start, community leaders and economists have regarded the Promise as much more than a scholarship program.
A year after the launch of the Promise, Ronald R. Kitchens, chief executive of Southwest Michigan First, a nonprofit regional economic development agency, told the New York Times that the Promise was “already working in Kalamazoo, influencing an economic transition from a collapsed industrial
past of paper and auto-related manufacturing to a new era of enterprise related to academics, science, medicine and engineering.”
Economist Timothy Bartik, a member of the Kalamzoo School Board, told Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, “The issue is broader than just the merits of tuition assistance … The issue is how communities and states can develop and attract human capital.”
Now, 6-1/2 years into the Promise, I wanted an objective look at the program’s impact on the community.
Since 1945, Kalamazoo has been home to the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit organization established to do research into the creation and maintenance of employment.
For scientific study of the Promise’s effects on the community, the Upjohn Institute was a natural. And it has enthusiastically accepted the role of lead organization for research requests on the Promise.
Dr. Michelle Miller-Adams, holding a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia, took leave from Grand Valley State University in 2006 to study the Promise’s effects as a visiting scholar at the Upjohn Institute. She has already published one book on the subject “The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo” and is at work on another.
Miller-Adams says that “the largest, clearest impact of the Kalamazoo Promise has been on enrollment in the Kalamazoo public schools, and a lot of things flow from that, both educationally and economically.”
The district’s student population had been declining for years. The Promise reversed that immediately. Enrollment grew by 10% (about 1,000 students) the first year, and growth has now reached 22%. This has led to construction of a new middle school and two replacement elementary schools, supported by the voters’ approval of millage proposals. These construction dollars have gone back into the community. Additionally, the incoming students bring their families, and the families bring their incomes and their spending.
Moreover, state funding is tied to student population, so the population increase has cushioned the state’s overall cuts in aid to local education.
Other economic impacts are more difficult to measure. Miller-Adams points to “a moment, soon after Kalamazoo Promise was announced, when it looked like we had an upward tick in the housing market” within the school district (the district includes the City of Kalamazoo). This was widely reported in the media. Others have pointed to Kalamazoo home prices, which had trailed Grand Rapids in 2005, then moved $17,000 higher in 2010 (Chris Andrews in Bridge Michigan, December, 2011).
But Miller-Adams and her colleagues have looked at the local housing market statistics periodically since that first year and they have not found a measurable impact on home prices. Yet, she points to something else of significance: after years of annual decline, the city’s population has stabilized. She thinks that the Promise may well be having a positive effect, but “the volume is not big enough to move the needle” on housing prices, given the very slack housing market.
Downtown Kalamazoo office, retail and residency vacancy rates are very good (the residential vacancy rate is a miniscule 1.9% and the retail vacancy rate is 10.4%, according to Downtown Kalamazoo, Incorporated (http://www.downtownkalamazoo.org/Do-Business/Economic-Indicators-Vacancy/Occupancy-Report.aspx). By comparison, Michigan’s over all residential vacancy rate for 2010 was 14.56% and Grand Rapids’ was 10.53%. Miller-Adams says that “whether this is [at least partly] a result of the Kalamazoo Promise is impossible to say”. She acknowledges the long-term downtown development work of Downtown Kalamazoo, Incorporated. Still, personally, she thinks that the Promise’s effect on overall morale and enthusiasm of the City’s people and businesses has “helped push that downtown dynamism forward.”
But perhaps the best effects of the Promise are yet to come. Many economists agree that the best jobs of the future will go to the areas with the most educated work forces. Miller-Adams says that roughly 90% of Kalamazoo public school graduates are going on to higher education. This is a fantastic number for an urban district. And 85% of the Promise students attending four-year colleges are on track to graduate. If most of them come back to Kalamazoo, the region should end up with one of the best-educated workforces in the country. And the jobs will follow.
Lawrence M. Glazer is the author of Wounded Warrior, a biography of former governor and Supreme Court justice John Swainson, and winner of theIndependent Publisher gold medal in biography. He is also a retired Ingham County Circuit Court Judge and former legal advisor to Gov. James J. Blanchard. He currently serves on the State Board of Ethics.