Michigan's College Access Blog

How to Make a College Promise: Lessons from Kalamazoo

Originally published through the W.E. Upjohn Institute blog on January 12, 2015.

As researchers focusing on issues of employment and education, we have been studying the impact of free college since the Kalamazoo Promise was announced just over nine years ago.  The President’s plan parallels the Kalamazoo Promise in important aspects, making the well‐researched Kalamazoo experience highly relevant to the debate about to begin in Congress. Clearly, low‐income and first‐generation college students face many barriers to higher education: adequate funding is just one hurdle. Our research shows, however, that reducing those financial barriers indisputably increases the number of young people attending post‐secondary institutions, progressing through school, and completing degrees or certificates.

The president’s program was modeled in part on the Tennessee Promise, an initiative announced last year by Republican Governor Bill Haslam that makes community college free for all Tennessee high‐school graduates beginning in 2015. The Tennessee Promise, in turn, was inspired by the Kalamazoo
Promise and a growing number of other place‐based scholarship programs in places as diverse as El Dorado, Arkansas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In an important regard, the President’s plan differs from the Tennessee Promise and takes a lesson from Kalamazoo. Like many other scholarship programs, the Tennessee Promise is a “last‐dollar” program, meaning that funds are awarded after other sources of student loan financing are received. This structure has the unintended effect of benefiting middle‐income more than low‐income students, especially in the case of community colleges where federal financial aid in the form of Pell grants covers the full cost of community college.  

By contrast, one of the best aspects of the President’s plan is that the tuition funding would be awarded first, making it possible for low‐income students to use their Pell grants to support living costs, thereby reducing the number of hours worked and making it possible for them to focus on their education. The Kalamazoo Promise pioneered this innovation, but only one other Promise program among the states has adopted it to date.

Even more critically, our research into the impact of Promise programs has shown that money alone is not the answer. In Kalamazoo and elsewhere, it has become clear that local community colleges must be ready to accommodate an influx of students, many of them low‐income or first‐generation college‐goers
who often require extra support at the post‐secondary level. Supporting new students will also make new demands on local K‐12 school districts and community‐based organizations. The academic expectations of community colleges must be clearly articulated to K‐12 district leadership so that the transition from high school to college is smooth and students can avoid having to spend time and money on developmental or remedial courses. We call this community alignment, and it is a critical element in the success of any scholarship program.

The president’s proposal improves on the Tennessee model in several respects. Importantly, students may attend half‐time. In Kalamazoo, we have found that part‐time attendance can ease the transition to college for students who may not be fully prepared. It is also far‐sighted that the free community college tuition under the president’s proposal applies not only to recent high school graduates, as the Chicago and Tennessee programs do, but also to adults who can benefit from going back to college. Just as the GI Bill in the 1940s dramatically expanded the proportion of young people attending college, laying the groundwork for the U.S. economy’s dynamic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, so does expanded access to community college for recent graduates and adults in need of greater human capital could help businesses assemble the globally competitive workforce of the 21st century. 

We are at an exciting moment for college access, as a multitude of initiatives at the national, state, and local levels converge to expand opportunity, promote attainment, and reduce the cost of higher education. Some of the most innovative developments are taking place at the very local level, where place‐based scholarships like the Kalamazoo Promise are reshaping school districts, towns, and cities throughout the nation. They are an example of grassroots responses to local needs that is one of the great strengths of our policymaking framework. The president’s announcement provides much‐needed national leadership to move forward these multiple efforts. We hope that Congress will now join in, providing the resources needed for this investment in the nation’s economic future.

Guest Authors:

Michelle Miller-Adams

Michelle Miller-Adams, research associate at the W.E. Upjohn Institute and associate professor at Grand Valley State University
 Bridget Timmeney
Bridget Timmeney, special projects coordinator at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research
Posted: January 13, 2015


Most college-bound students don't apply to enough colleges

Originally published in Bridge Magazine, January 6, 2014

Your recent article in Bridge Magazine on college admissions and the increasing number of college applications suggests that submitting a high number of college applications is the norm for today’s high school students, however the data compiled by the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) shows otherwise. MCAN’s mission is to increase college readiness, participation and completion in Michigan, and to ultimately increase the percentage of Michigan residents with a high-quality degree or credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.

After completing Michigan’s fourth College Application Week last month at high schools across the state, our data shows participating students apply to 1.25 colleges on average. Just under 34,000 applications were submitted by nearly 27,000 high school seniors during this year’s College Application Week efforts, with 43 percent of participating high school seniors indicating that it was their first time submitting a college application. 

CAW Bridge

Additionally, 31 percent of participating high school seniors indicated they will be the first in their family to attend college. This data is based upon 271 high schools and career tech centers that reported their participation in the Michigan College Access Network’s (MCAN) College Application Week. Data from previous College Application Week efforts in 2011-1013 also shows this trend has held true. The American College Application Campaign has found similar results year to year with participating students completing an average of 1.44 college applications.

MCAN hosts Michigan College Application Week to give all students access to help with the college application process. For many students the application process can be cumbersome or confusing. Too often students do not apply to college because they don’t understand the college-going process. We’re dedicated to helping all students navigate this process, but especially students who statistically face more obstacles in their paths to college, including minority, low-income and first generation college students.

Michigan College Application Week gives these students the tools to learn how to properly apply to different institutions and find financial aid. It also provides crucial support throughout this important step in a student’s career.

While there has been a rise in the number of college applications submitted in our state, we can’t assume this rise is due to each student applying to 10 or more colleges. MCAN’s efforts to aid low-income and minority students with their college applications can explain the rise as well. Students who might not have applied to college otherwise are now realizing the importance of a college education and looking to their high school staff to work with them to complete and submit their applications successfully.

Rather than focusing on the number of applications students are submitting, we should be stressing the importance of a community helping students find the resources they need to decide which college is the best match and fit for them.

It’s clear that obtaining a college degree can provide countless career opportunities, including higher salaries and a better chance for upward mobility. No student should be denied the opportunity to get a college degree. As a state, we need to make sure we are doing all we can to make college an opportunity for all by providing our students with the tools to take that important first step – submitting a college application.

Originally published in Bridge Magazine, January 6, 2014.

Brandy Johnson headshot 2013Author: Brandy Johnson, excutive director of the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: January 7, 2014

Happy New Year from MCAN

Best wishes for a wonderful new year!

As we enter the new year, we can't help but look back on some of the exciting and new accomplishments that happened at MCAN in 2014. It was a busy year for our organization and staff. We are excited to see what 2015 brings!

In 2014, the MCAN staff:

And that's not all! Watch for our annual report to be released in March, where we will share more about our 2014 accomplishments. To everyone who has dedicated their time, energy and support, we at the Michigan College Access Network thank you.

MCAN staff: Brandy, Christi, Jamie, Michelle, Ryan and Sarah

Posted: January 6, 2014

College Lingo: How we define "college" impacts our community culture

Collective Impact Spotlight

Communication is all around us and has been at the core of how humans interact since the beginning of time. The words and images we choose to define college and communicate its importance matter.

I repeat. The words we choose matter.

Too often we conflate the word "college" with "university" and through this process we alienate those that are in fact college-bound. A postsecondary educational program that results in a valuable credential is precisely the definition of "college." Students that pursue education beyond high school are going to college -- whether they are pursuing an engineering degree from Michigan State University or an aviation certificate from Northwestern Michigan College.

Spokane Public Schools in Spokane County, Washington took on the task of redefining "college" by launching their T-2-4 campaign. Most recently they released a music video to help educate the community through song. It's a fun way to reinforce how Spokane defines "college" and celebrate all choices.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 1.07.21 PM

Rap group Level Ground tackles the concept of T-2-4. The song elevates Spokane Public Schools' dedication to preparing students to successfully move to and through some form of higher education, whether it's technical, 2-year or 4-year.

Are you ready? Then let's get in and make it through. I'm going to a T-2-4 (Technical, two-year, 4-year or the Military)


MCAN's staff and board have engaged in a similar process. We don't have a fun music video (although the ideas are turning in our heads...) but we do have a strong vision and values statement. About two years ago our board and staff met at great length and discussed what we mean when we say "college." We were very careful and thoughtful when crafting our values statements. It's not a coincidence that the first value statement we discussed and now list defines the term "college".

  • College is postsecondary education: MCAN uses the term "college" to refer to the attainment of valuable postsecondary credentials beyond high school, including professional/technical certificates and academic degrees.
  • College is a necessity: Postsecondary education is a prerequisite to success in a knowledge-based economy. Everyone must pursue and complete a postsecondary credential or degree beyond high school.
  • College is for everyone: The postsecondary education attainment rates among low-income students and students of color are significantly lower than those of other students. MCAN is committed to closing these gaps.
  • College is a public good: Postsecondary educational opportunity and attainment are critical to a just and equitable society, strong economy, and healthy communities.

Why not just say "postsecondary education?" MCAN embraces the term "college" to elevate quality postsecondary degrees and credentials. Also postsecondary education is a clunky 22-letter phrase that doesn't easily roll off your tongue. It sounds intimidating and isn't easily embraced by the general public.

It's critical Local College Access Networks take the time to discuss how they define college, but coming to an agreement is not the ultimate goal. The LCAN leadership needs to embrace the definition and regularly utilize the language when talking about college. Be the leading voice to redefine college in your community.

In our last Spotlight we shared how West Ottawa Public Schools has seen a dramatic shift in their college-going culture. At the core of that shift is the district embracing their mission and ensuring every student, parent and staff member understands the mission and what it means when someone says "college."

How is your community defining college and making sure your definition is widely heard and understood? Share your community definition on our LinkedIn page here.

For more information on how communication impacts your college access efforts head to the MCAN website to download our guidebook, Charting the Course: A community's guide for increasing educational attainment through the lens of collective impact, and our Communication Toolkit.

Lisa King headshot 2013Author: Lisa King, public relations consultant for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 17, 2014

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