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"Kalamazoo Promise" Sends Kids to College for Free

The cost of attending college in the United States is getting higher each year… now averaging $5,500 for tuition and fees at public, taxpayer-supported colleges and universities. Private institutions cost even more. But that won't be a problem for high school graduates in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the next 12 years.

Anonymous donors are giving a full college scholarship to any student who graduates from the city's high schools between now and the class of 2017. Families in Kalamazoo are euphoric.

Jenny Hill is all smiles when her daughter vows to work twice as hard on her grades. "We were just so excited," she recalls, "and our tenth grader was like 'Okay, okay I get it I'm going to college for free!'" Laurie and Todd Drillock say they now think the University of Michigan is possible for their 10th grader Adelie. Before, they say, prospects for the money to send her and their other child to college were dim. "We figured we'd have to rely on scholarships, filling out forms to get as much financial aid as possible for the school she wants to attend."

Yulanda Powell's eldest daughter is in community college, but she has no money to help her next two, including fifth-grader Darian, who didn't want to go to college. "[Now,] he will be going somewhere!" she laughs. "He will be going somewhere in Michigan."

That's good news for Michigan's public colleges and universities, which now may be even more attractive to the top local students.

It's also good news for Kalamazoo, a community that's seen some hard times. Once it had big money -- from paper mills and pharmaceutical companies. But it's lost 20% of its manufacturing jobs in just five years. Many parents say they feel vindicated by their decision to stick with the city, when friends told them they were crazy to stay.

Still, it won't be easy to keep the Promise for the 25% of Kalamazoo students growing up in poverty. The scholarship offer requires graduates to have a C average. Children from poor families often do not have access to tutors, help from parents with homework, and other resources they need in order to succeed in school. But Superintendent Janice Brown says she wants 100% of her students to qualify, adding, "We understand that we have to continue to put the support systems in place in order to do that work."

Ms. Brown says the school system will expand summer school classes which help students develop their academic skills, along with a credit retrieval program that lets them re-take classes they've failed.

Many people think the Kalamazoo Promise will do more than help the students. They think it will revitalize the whole city. Although it's far too soon to know whether that will happen, already some local auto dealers say they've sold new cars to parents flush with college savings.

Real estate agents like Kathy King are posting newly-created yard signs that say "College Tuition Qualified" in front of the homes they're trying to sell. "I have three listings just near here I'm putting them up at," she explains.

The city is buzzing with speculation about the donors' identities. Some think it's local wealthy families. Others say it could be a hometown boy who's made good. The cost of sending thousands of children to college is likely to reach at least $200 million. But Laurie Drillock says it isn't important who the donors are. She's just grateful. "You guys are awesome," she tells them. "We thank you from the bottom of our hearts."

Twenty-nine new students have enrolled in Kalamazoo Public Schools since the Promise was made on November 11. And the city is making new plans for the future, a future no one dreamed of just a short time ago.