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Free college tuition helps, but it’s not a silver bullet

Listen to this episode of The Impact to learn how a long-running program in Kalamazoo shows that students need more than tuition to make it through to graduation.

Olivia Terrentine, a Kalamazoo Promise recipient, works on a writing assignment.
Byrd Pinkerton/Vox

On November 10, 2005, the school board in Kalamazoo, Michigan, called a meeting. Parents and students and teachers packed into a hot room with fluorescent lighting. Then, the school superintendent, Janice Brown, stood up to make an announcement: A group of anonymous donors — local wealthy individuals — were to going to cover the tuition costs for graduates of the Kalamazoo public schools.

This is the Kalamazoo Promise: Attend Kalamazoo Public Schools from kindergarten through 12 grade, live in the district, and your in-state college tuition is completely covered. Attend Kalamazoo Public Schools for a shorter period, and a percentage of your tuition is paid for. This applies to four-year public universities, community colleges, and even some private schools and trade programs. And it will continue to apply for the foreseeable future.

In 2005, this was big news. Kalamazoo was a struggling town. The biggest employer had left, and much of the middle class had left with it. The public schools had been losing students for years. So before the program, teachers told me in interviews for The Impact podcast, college wasn’t always on students’ radars.

“I can remember doing parent teacher conferences and saying, I really think this student has great college potential,” Scott Hunsinger, a long-time Kalamazoo Public School teacher, remembers. “And you could almost see that thought: Well … how would we pay for it?”

“It was frustrating because [college] wasn’t a part of their vocabulary,” says Valerie Long, another KPS teacher. “It wasn’t a part of, you know … that’s what’s next.”

After the Promise, that changed. Valerie Long remembers her nephew, a second-grader, telling her he was going to college shortly after the Promise was announced.

“I thought to myself: It’s begun,” Long says. “What a beautiful thing. It’s begun as a second grader!”

College graduates do better in life. They earn more money. They have access to a wider range of jobs. But college is getting more and more expensive in the United States. Those who finish often graduate with a lot of debt … sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. This debt can keep them from moving forward in their lives, from buying a house or starting a family. And the No. 1 reason students give for dropping out of college is the price.

Aaliyah Buchanan, sitting with her son, looks through a scrapbook of photos from her childhood.
Byrd Pinkerton/Vox

Free college tuition feels like it should solve these problems. That’s what some people in Kalamazoo thought would happen when the Promise started, in 2005. It’s part of the platform put forward by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, though they want to go even further than making tuition free.

Now, almost 15 years later, we have a fair amount of data about the results of the Kalamazoo Promise. And researchers like Michelle Miller-Adams and her colleagues at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research have spent years digging into the data.

“It’s very much a glass half-full, glass half-empty story,” Miller-Adams says.

On the glass half-full side, the Kalamazoo Promise has had some impressive results. It’s bumped up high school graduation rates over time — and it’s bumped up college completion rates, too.

On the glass half-empty side, college completion rates for Kalamazoo are only up to the state average for public universities. That’s impressive for a high-poverty school district, but, as Von Washington Jr., the executive director of community relations at the Kalamazoo Promise, puts it, “They’re still having what we consider to be national average numbers of success. And that’s just not acceptable.”

On this episode of The Impact: Vox’s Byrd Pinkerton looks at why more of these Kalamazoo students with free college tuition don’t finish — and what the Kalamazoo Promise is trying to do to bring college completion rates even higher.

This episode follows two Kalamazoo Promise students: Aaliyah Buchanan and Olivia Terrentine. They’ll take us through their educational experiences — from elementary school through high school and eventually to college — to understand the hurdles that cropped up on their track to college, and the ways that they’re trying to get past them now.

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