The Kalamazoo Promise—Keeping Its Promise to Expand College Enrollment and Completion

More than 150 communities throughout the country have adopted place-based college scholarships, and several states now offer similar tuition-free programs for high school graduates. What sets these programs apart from earlier college scholarships is their local nature, typically a school district, and their lack of stringent merit or financial need requirements. With few hoops to jump through, these scholarships are simple for students to understand, but can they broadly boost college enrollment and completion?

Timothy Bartik, Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska studied the impact on college outcomes of the Kalamazoo Promise, an early and generous place-based scholarship. Open to graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools living in the district since at least ninth grade, the Promise pays up to 100 percent of tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in Michigan. The research team compared students before and after the Promise existed, both eligible and ineligible students within Kalamazoo, as well as Kalamazoo graduates relative to graduates of comparable districts in the state.

The Kalamazoo Promise increased college enrollment and also caused students to switch to more selective institutions. Students became 12 percentage points more likely to earn a post-secondary credential within six years, up from a baseline of 36 percent. These effects occurred in a diverse, urban school district, and in a state with highly ranked public universities.

So are programs like this the ultimate recipe to increasing educational attainment? According to the authors, it’s a good start. “These impacts illustrate the potential and limits of place-based college scholarships. A simple, universal, and generous scholarship can significantly increase educational attainment of American students, although ‘free’ college is insufficient by itself to ensure successful postsecondary education.”

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources: “The Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship on College Enrollment and Completion” by Timothy J. Bartik, Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska.

Timothy J. Bartik (@TimBartik), Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska (@MartaLachowska) are at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.