The college debt crisis in America has families on the move for far different reasons.
The Bigler family left Wichita for a tiny, low-cost town in western Kansas to cope with debilitating debt, which Jon Bigler figures he will pay off at the age of 72. A physician’s assistant, he and his wife, Lori, are struggling. Adding their own college debt to that of their three daughters, the Biglers spend $2,500 each month on school loans. That doesn’t leave a lot.
In contrast is the Carter family. In 2006, Omarr and Leona Carter packed up the family’s minivan and moved across the country, from Seattle, Wash., to Kalamazoo, Mich., to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise. The goal is for all six of their children to take advantage of the Promise and save perhaps a half-million dollars in the process. She calls the move “one of the best decisions we’ve made.”
Leona is now running for a seat on the Kalamazoo City Commission to work on behalf of a city she has come to love. “We have come to know Kalamazoo as not just a place of promise for our six children but as a place of great potential for anyone who’s willing to connect to resources and contribute to helping their community in a meaningful way,” she said.
Cities of Promise are truly Cities of Opportunity for families and the difference can be tremendous.
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When a Promise program begins, there are all kinds of questions. Two of the most important ones are: “What are you trying to accomplish?” and “How can you ensure the money lasts?”
And while Promise scholarship dollars obviously benefit those who receive them, they can also be used to fortify a school system. Places like Kalamazoo, Mich., and New Haven, Conn., are quick to point out that enrollment in public schools have made a dramatic turn once a Promise is in place.
So last night in Richmond, Calif., the City Council was confronted with residents urging them to make Richmond Promise benefits available to charter and private school students. Those who were against a strict traditional public school element held signs and made pleas late into the evening.
Here’s one response — a single Promise program can’t do everything. What it can do is develop a culture and leave room for additional programs to be established by motivated individuals who feel the need to address a gap. The nation’s first Promise program — the Bernard Daly Scholarship Fund in Lake County, Ore. — began in 1922 and 18 years later others started a similar program focused on funding out-of-state students that the Daly Fund wouldn’t cover. Both programs still exist.
The issue hanging out there for the City Council, which has vowed to submit a final Richmond Promise Strategic Action Plan at its next meeting, is whether its Promise will be used as an incentive to bolster its public schools.
It’s a question that many places have faced, including down in Greensboro, N.C., where Say Yes To Education recently set up shop. Should a component of a Promise program’s mission be to uplift a city’s school system by investing in those who’ve invested in it?
The answer is not an easy one.
There is a Johnny Appleseed result that comes from the establishment of a Promise.
Kalamazoo Promise has hatched more than a dozen programs in the state of Michigan. Earlier this year Cities of Promise featured the Braddock Promise, which is an initiative following the lead of the nearby Pittsburgh Promise. New Haven Promise was the first of its kind in New England and Hartford will join the Promise Nation next year.
Now Illinois is a hot spot for Promise with Harper College announcing last week that its new Promise Scholarship will be serving public high school students in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago starting in 2019.
Chicago’s STAR Scholarship received a lot of attention in recent months when it was heavily cited during President Barack Obama’s push for America’s Promise, which would open up community college as an extension of high school.
But Illinois has also been home to two other community college Promise programs — one in Peoria and the other in Galesburg. And the Peoria Promise appears to be the model for the Harper College initiative.
A quick look at the perimeters show that the program will be rather inclusive as it relates to high school grades, but tight in its requirements for both attendance and community service. Once enrolled as a tuition-free scholar at Harper, there will still be service expectations as well as increasing minimums of grade-point success.
“A college credential has never been more crucial to success than in today’s 21st century economy,” Harper President Dr. Kenneth Ender said. “This program has the potential to positively impact not only deserving and motivated students, but the entire region by presenting employers with an educated and skilled workforce.”
The school’s board of trustees has set aside $5 million from the general fund and the school has also secured another $1 million in donations so far while Motorola Solutions Chairman & CEO Greg Brown and his wife, Anna, are chairing a campaign to raise $10 million to fund the program into the future.
Harper College — perhaps best known as the alma mater of Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin — is located in the Village of Palatine about 25 miles from downtown Chicago.
Roz Wiggins of the Yale School of Management offered the title “The Big Bang” for a segment about the Kalamazoo Promise in her Cities of Promise town hall case study last November at PromiseNet.
“It wasn’t the first place-based scholarship, but Kalamazoo was the first program of its kind that made a citywide commitment and it caught the country’s attention,” she wrote.
That “Big Bang” occurred at a city board of education meeting on Nov. 10, 2005, and now folks in Kalamazoo have rolled out the activities in a yearlong celebration of its 10th anniversary. The Kalamazoo Promise — which expects to enroll about new 500 recipients each fall — has awarded more than $60 million in anonymously-funded scholarships, leading to more than 1,000 degrees.
“We may never know those donors’ names, but we know how they helped bring this community together and how you’ve embraced their Promise not just as a gift to be appreciated, but a responsibility to be fulfilled,” President Barack Obama told the 2010 graduating class of Kalamazoo Central High. “We know how they have helped inspire an entire generation of young people here in Kalamazoo to imagine a different future for themselves.”
Under the theme “The Promise We Keep,” the events leading up to a formal anniversary include a series of community conversations focused on the barriers which have kept Promise-eligible folks from utilizing the award, a downtown community celebration in August and a return of PromiseNet, the national conference which was established in Kalamazoo.
“We knew that The Promise was a gift that would change lives,” Von Washington Jr., executive director of Kalamazoo Promise community relations, told Alex Mitchell of the Kalamazoo Gazette. “What we’ve learned over the past decade is that it’s a gift that can transform a community, but only to the extent that the community steps forward to make sure The Promise is kept for everyone.”