Correction to This Article
A May 29 article about free college tuition for public school students in Kalamazoo, Mich., incorrectly said that Kendall College of Art and Design is in Big Rapids, Mich. It is in Grand Rapids.

Tuition for Students, a Better Future for Their City

Lena Elian, with her father, Nawaf, is planning to use money from the Kalamazoo Promise to attend Western Michigan University rather than a community college.
Lena Elian, with her father, Nawaf, is planning to use money from the Kalamazoo Promise to attend Western Michigan University rather than a community college. (By Kari Lydersen -- The Washington Post)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- Lena Elian is 17 and had been planning to go to a community college here when she graduates high school. She is the oldest of five and didn't want her father, who owns a local grocery store, to have to pay too much for college.

Then in November, she heard the news. Thanks to anonymous donors, Elian's college tuition at a four-year state university will be completely paid for. Her four younger siblings probably will get the same treatment, as will any student who attends Kalamazoo public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"People were crying -- we couldn't believe it," said Elian, a slender young woman with blond streaks in her dark hair who plans to study law, psychology or business.

The program, called the Kalamazoo Promise, applies to tuition at any state university or community college. Students who attend all four years of high school in Kalamazoo public schools will get 65 percent of their tuition paid, and those who started the system in grammar or middle school will likewise get a prorated amount.

"Now everyone can afford college; it's very encouraging for the kids," said Lena's father, Nawaf Elian, 56, an immigrant from Jerusalem who came to Kalamazoo in 1971. "Instead we can put that money toward something else like improving the house or the store."

Lena Elian's cousin Nidal Othman graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School two years ago, so he won't get scholarship money, but he is still optimistic about how the Kalamazoo Promise will affect his prospects and the city of 77,000 as a whole. "More families will come here for jobs," he said, standing behind the counter of the family store in a low-income neighborhood on the city's north side.

That is the idea behind the Promise: to not only educate local youths, but attract skilled employees and investors. It could not come at a better time for Michigan, which has been struggling with a loss of manufacturing jobs and lagging in the number of college graduates.

"If a family has four or five young kids and they're looking at job opportunities in different areas, they can move here and not have to save for college tuition," said John Beacon, vice provost for enrollment at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

Locals hope that Promise participants will return to Kalamazoo after college graduation, drawn by jobs and opportunities created through ripple effects of the program. "If the jobs are here, then local businesses through internships and partnerships can pluck our best kids," said Bob Jorth, the sole staff administrator of the Promise.

Less than six months since the announcement, the Promise is off to a good start. Public school officials say they have already seen a wave of out-of-towners exploring the schools, and real estate agents say the housing market has been stimulated. The school district even produced yard signs saying "College Tuition Qualified" for houses on the market.

What's more, the high school dropout rate this winter was down considerably, as students who before might not have visualized college in their future saw opportunities open up: Last school year, 265 students dropped out between November and February; in the same period this year, the number was 21.

The Promise is expected to cost several million dollars during its first year and $12 million to $14 million per year after that. It is slated to run indefinitely. While many have speculated that the donors are connected to local companies such as Pfizer or medical supplies manufacturer Stryker, the donors are strictly guarding their anonymity.

The program comes when Kalamazoo has been trying various strategies for revitalization. Three years ago a public-private partnership to stimulate creation of biotech companies was launched, spurred by Pfizer's partial pullout from its Kalamazoo facilities. Rather than accepting transfers out of the area, many scientists elected to stay in Kalamazoo and start their own companies.

At Kalamazoo Central High School, many of Lena Elian's classmates have refigured college plans because of the Promise, deciding to attend four-year institutions instead of community colleges or opting for in-state rather than out-of-state schools.

Seniors Lacy Petersen and her boyfriend, Sean Wallace, decided to use Promise tuition to attend Kendall College of Art and Design in Big Rapids instead of art school in Ohio. "Now they can use other scholarships they have for room and board and art supplies," said Lacy's mother, Patti Petersen, secretary to Kalamazoo Central High Principal Carl Myles. "Lacy would have gone to college anyway, but for lots of other students this will make the difference of going to college or not."

Myles, whose two children will take advantage of the Promise, said he hopes to adjust the mind-set of underachieving students. "Money isn't an obstacle anymore, so they don't have that excuse not to study," he said. "We need to get every one of our students to the next level. That will take some time."

The results of the Promise over the years will be tracked by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, based in Kalamazoo. Jorth said representatives of other cities and education officials from several countries including Germany and Japan are watching how the program pans out.

"The jury's still out," said James Bosco, a retired Western Michigan University professor who returned to the university to coordinate the Promise. "This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. But we're off to a good start."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company