WSW: The Growth, Structure And Benefit Of "Promise" Programs

Nov 15, 2018

Credit WMUK

A new policy paper from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research examines the types of communities that can benefit from Promise college scholarship programs. It also researches the structure of programs with the most benefit.


Upjohn Institute Senior Researcher Michelle Miller-Adams and Research Fellow Ed Smith joined WMUK’s Gordon Evans to discuss their report Promise Scholarship Programs and Local Prosperity.

Since the Kalamazoo Promise was launched in 2005, other communities have started their own programs. But many of them have different designs. Promise programs have been started in towns and school districts of all sizes from tiny rural areas to larger cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit and Denver. Smith says mid to small size communities usually see the most benefit from college scholarship programs. Miller-Adams says the benefit to local prosperity isn’t likely to be as great in big cities.

The Kalamazoo Promise covers tuition and fees for any student who graduates from high school in the district. Students can attend any public university or community college in the state. Several private schools in Michigan were added in 2014. Miller-Adams says the design of the Kalamazoo Promise aims to strengthen the public school district. Smith says if the goal of a program is workforce development, the program may be limited to community colleges in the area and specific types of programs.

Enrollment in the Kalamazoo school district increased after the Kalamazoo Promise was launched that followed years of decline. Smith says a promise program makes a community “more sticky” and make it harder to leave. Miller-Adams says a promise program can also make an area more attractive to families and businesses that may locate there. 

"There are benefits up and down the income range, but the benefits are different depending on where you are."

As more Promise programs are started, Miller-Adams says there is a debate about whether they should be targeted for lower-income families. She says a universal program like Kalamazoo’s will benefit students who would go to college anyway. But Miller-Adams says in a school district with a high poverty rate the scholarship program will help lower-income students. She says a universal program also helps people in the middle class who don’t qualify for scholarships and end up taking on large amounts of debt. “There are benefits up and down the income range, but the benefits are different depending on where you are.”

Finding the start-up money can be difficult. Miller-Adams says a privately funded program requires philanthropists willing to take a risk and be patient. She says it shouldn’t be thought of as a philanthropic gift, but an investment in human capital. Miller-Adams says the payoffs come down the road, but “there’s a very high rate of return to these programs.”