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The City Where High School Grads Go to College for Free

6 minute read

When Doreisha Reed was in elementary school, she thought college was free for everyone. Her teachers spoke about it like it was an extension of high school, as if she had no other option but to attend. And when the teachers talked, they kept bringing up “the Promise.”

“Until middle school, I thought everybody had it,” says Reed, now 18 and a recent Kalamazoo Central High School graduate headed to Western Michigan University. “But that’s when it hit me. Other kids have to pay for college.”

Kalamazoo, Mich., is different not just because its name sounds funny. The city that sells T-shirts that read, Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo! was once best known as the subject of Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” and later as the hometown of Yankees legend Derek Jeter. But in the past decade, it’s acquired another renown: incubator of one of the most generous and transformative philanthropic gifts in the country.

Since 2006, more than 5,000 students have been eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise, an $80 million investment from a group of anonymous local donors that allows every city student to attend an in-state college tuition-free. The initiative is so striking, it spurred President Obama to give his first high school commencement address at Kalamazoo Central in 2010.

Visiting the city, it’s easy to see that the Promise has been about culture as much as tuition. Kindergarten teachers put college pennants up in their classrooms. Elementary-school students talk about the differences between Michigan and Michigan State. Real estate agents hype homes within the school district. The name of a local peregrine falcon seen around the city? Promise.

The notion of making public universities free has been revived this election cycle. But in many U.S. cities, it’s already happening from the ground up. More than 50 communities have some form of place-based tuition-free scholarships, an idea that originated in Kalamazoo after a decades-long slide in enrollment beginning in the 1980s led to tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts. Then, Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) was known as a tough inner-city district that white families were abandoning for nearby suburban schools. Like many of its Rust Belt neighbors, the city had once been a manufacturing hub, the proud home to Gibson guitars and Checker cabs, but jobs left as factories moved overseas. The biggest hit came when Pfizer acquired the Upjohn Co., a longtime employer that created the digestible pill, and shrank its local operations.

In the mid-2000s, a group of wealthy donors began talking about “a big initiative” to turn the community around, and the discussion always came back to education, says Janice Brown, Promise’s executive director emeritus and the only person in direct contact with the donors. By 2005, they had decided to fund college tuition for all Kalamazoo graduates, a gift they hoped would create economic ripples across the region. When Brown announced the Promise that November, parents cried. Some thought it was a joke.

Britney Schiedel, a high school junior at the time, remembers her grandmother approaching her. “She said, ‘Your school is paid for,'” Schiedel recalls. “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?'” She hadn’t really thought about college until then. “I made the decision to go to college the next day,” she says.

Kalamazoo has since become a de facto laboratory for testing the communal benefits of a college education. After years of decline, local high school enrollment has increased from 10,000 students before the Promise to 12,500 in 2016. The W.E. Upjohn Institute, a think tank started by the founder of the pharmaceutical firm, estimates that enrollment would otherwise be closer to 9,000. Though the Promise doesn’t require college grads to return, it helped stabilize the district, with the population holding steady and far fewer white families leaving for suburban schools. College enrollment of Kalamazoo graduates increased from 60% before the Promise to 69%, while those obtaining degrees within six years after high school rose from 36% to 48%. The Promise boosted the percentage of low-income students who received a bachelor’s degree from 10% to 16%, and local students are more likely to go to college than their peers in other parts of the state. Kalamazoo, meanwhile, did not lose any of its population during the Great Recession, and the current unemployment rate is below the Michigan average.

The Promise is not a panacea, however. While more grads are going to college, minorities account for too many of the Promise students who do not finish, with black and Hispanic students graduating at half the rate of whites. “The completion rates are still horrible,” says Bob Jorth, Promise’s current executive director. “But the donors understand this is a generational issue.”

Like elsewhere in the state, poverty rates have actually increased in the city. About 70% of KPS students are on free or reduced lunch, one of the highest rates in Michigan. And the expectation that all Kalamazoo high school graduates will go on to college has highlighted other problems in the educational system, like the lack of early-childhood literacy programs.

But the Promise has also spurred surrounding schools to improve the quality of their facilities and teachers, and inspired dozens of communities across the U.S.–including Pittsburgh; Peoria, Ill.; and Syracuse, N.Y.–to create Promise-like programs, 16 of them in Michigan alone.

Despite these successes, the Promise’s donors remain fiercely protective of their anonymity–guessing their identities is a parlor game. Few with ties to the area could afford such a gift, so most residents suspect the Stryker family, which owns the medical-device manufacturer Stryker Corp., or its top executives. A Stryker spokesperson said the firm is “not affiliated” with the Promise.

Change, of course, takes time. Schiedel, who as a high school junior hadn’t realized what the Promise meant, gets it now. When she was a student, the news from her high school was almost always bad–fights, suspensions, drugs. But after graduating from Michigan State, she bought a home in Kalamazoo and is getting a master’s degree in social work at Western Michigan University, in town. “I wanted to come back to my community to pay it forward,” she says. “With the added bonus that my kids are going to get the Promise.”

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