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The Kalamazoo Promise is working, so why is it only in Kalamazoo?


The Next Idea

When I was ten years old, Kalamazoo was voted the All-American city by the National Civic League. We deserved it. We made the greatest guitars, the finest fishing rods and reels, and the best medicines, truck transmissions and automobile chassis in the world. Our downtown mall was featured in Look Magazine like it was a fabulous resort in Europe.

By the time I was 20 things had changed considerably. The venerable companies that had prospered for 100 years and given Kalamazoo its celebrated reputation began to wane, leave or fail altogether. There were cheaper, warmer and newer places to relocate. Many businesses did just that, and many people followed them.

Forlorn but determined not to be forgotten, the Convention and Visitors Bureau set in motion their most memorable ad campaign: “Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo.” When your brand message is that you exist, it’s safe to assume that the halcyon days are officially over.

The story was the same everywhere in Michigan: Flint, Jackson, Lansing, Pontiac and, of course, Detroit.

Like anyone my age, I love to talk about the good old days. But nothing obstructs innovation like nostalgia: the desire to look backward for our sense of well being. A vision of destiny is always directed forward to the future. That’s why it’s called progress.

A decade ago things changed for the better when a group of influential donors decided to reinvent Kalamazoo from the inside out. The Kalamazoo Promise, a financially-backed pledge to send every high school graduate in the Kalamazoo school system to college, was remarkably innovative in three ways.

First, it was done through private support without government assistance. Second, it was done anonymously. And third, it was an educational innovation aimed at developing the competency required to create future generations of innovators.

Recently the Upjohn Institute offered an extensive evaluation of the Promise. The report suggests that in addition to the financial support, the program is creating “a broader college-going culture” for “low-income families opening their minds to ambitions they may not have previously considered.”

Ten years after its inception, the Kalamazoo Promise is now an innovation annuity that will pay dividends for an entire community for years to come.

So what’s the Next Idea?

The Kalamazoo Promise is a great starting point, but we can go farther in our innovation efforts:

Create Turnkey Templates for Public-Private Partnerships: Perhaps the most astounding thing about the Kalamazoo Promise is how few other similar examples exist in Michigan. Usually, several viable variations emerge following a successful prototype. Not this time.

The Promise’s obvious success lays bare the fact that we are missing opportunities to engage businesses, associations and benefactors in supporting a wide variety of high school programs that make a college education available, regardless of financial need.

This could happen in a number of ways:

  • Schools can leverage the existing technologies and information systems of businesses to provide students with online learning, free and open textbooks and mentoring.

  • Companies and benefactors can offer action-learning projects and training for credit to students wishing to take up careers in specific fields.

  • Depending upon the situation, companies and associations can use their purchasing power to negotiate group discounts with institutions and other service providers.


The possibilities are really endless. Creating workshops and templates detailing how the Kalamazoo Promise is structured and functions is a logical place to start.
Get Involved Early and Often: One of the major reasons that nearly half of all college students never graduate has little to do with their academic preparedness. They give up for a variety of factors: family issues, lack of direction or simply insufficient engagement. Technology can be used to provide e-Advising and tracking of students from their early high school years and on through college. E-Advisors can provide more than just well-timed encouragement — they can help students plan their degrees, monitor their progress and enlist additional academic help as needed.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the Kalamazoo Promise is how few other similar examples exist in Michigan.

Manage the Transitions: Many of the major public university systems in America were based on Michigan’s hub-and-spoke model: Major research institutions, regional affiliates, and private and community colleges.

While most of these institutions do a fair job in synchronizing the steps from one to the other, the connection for the individual student is often lost, particularly at the first step from high school to college. Credit requirements change, semester schedules are disjointed and teaching practices are uneven.

Starting with high school, course credits could be treated like certificates or badges to be interchangeable between institutions. This will also allow accreditation of practical professional experience, providing more cohesion going forward.

Each student transitioning from one institution to another could be assigned to a small cohort of others making the same transition. Each cohort could be led by an academic concierge to help the students find answers to their questions and ensure that all make the crossing intact.

These are just some ways we can build upon and expand the Kalamazoo Promise’s success. As with any innovation, there are potential pitfalls to avoid. For example, staving off political coercion and commercial agendas may pose a potential problem. But the Promise seems to have met these challenges successfully, so there may be little value in reinventing what they have already invented.

While a community may lack the wherewithal to create its own "Promise" program with an enormous endowment given all at once, most have the ability to develop a coalition of contributors who can move things forward by focusing their resources. What keeps many communities from developing similar programs may have less to do with money and more to do with the ability of leaders to effectively enlist supporters with a compelling vision of the future. 

Yet, Michigan does have a promising future, especially if we think creatively in how to invest in our younger generations. I have it on the best of authority that that promise can be seen in Kalamazoo, which apparently is a real place.

Jeff DeGraffis a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. 

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