Can the promise of free college boost a town's economy?

Kalamazoo Promise recipient
Alex Plair Jr. gets a congratulatory kiss from his neighbor Irene Ryan while showing his diploma after his Kalamazoo Central High School graduation ceremony on Wednesday, June 7, 2006, at Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. Looking on in the background is his father, Alex Plair. Alex received a Kalamazoo Promise scholarship, attending Western Michigan University and majoring in construction Engineering.

In 2005, a group of anonymous donors in Kalamazoo, Mich. announced that they would pay in-state college tuition for every student who graduated from the district's high schools - regardless of grades, family income or disciplinary record.

For the small industrial town, the idea, called The Kalamazoo Promise, has allowed thousands of kids a chance at college who would have never had it before, and has kept families in the district who would have otherwise moved.

But it's not just about getting students into college. Ted Fishman, a journalist, essayist and author, wrote about the program for The New York Times and said it's also a focal point for improving the town's economy.

"It has become a kind of rallying point for the community to focus on its future," Fishman said on The Daily Circuit. "And focus on its future means becoming participatory citizens in a way that is more energetic than they had been before. It means lots of meetings, lots of pressure on local institutions... Communities do better by talking to one another and creating stronger networks and working at the top of their intelligence to solve their problems."

The program has paid out $35 million so far to 2,500 students. In the class of 2006, 90 percent of students eligible for the scholarship went to college. Of those in a four-year college, two-thirds have earned a degree and 14 percent have nearly graduated.

Area employers have been committed to hire the Promise students and keep them in the community, Fishman said.

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"The early successes are the students who have come out with vocational certificates," he said. "They can fill the skilled manufacturing jobs that America really is wanting."

On the blog, Barb Rothmeier said she was raised in Kalamazoo and watched the town's downturn when a major employer, Upjohn, was bought out by Pfizer.

"I am proud that the local money that remains there has stepped up to the plate (with or without Derek Jeter) to provide this opportunity for many students, and for the positive culture of hope for the city," she wrote. "Never underestimate the negative results of a takeover of a great local company, and also what private philanthropy can accomplish."

Is this a way for small cities and towns to strengthen their economy? Comment on the blog.

MPR News' Madelyn Mahon contributed to this report.