Kalamazoo Promise and Place-Based Scholarship Programs

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Community needs
Nonprofit Organization
The rising cost of college in the United States represents an obstacle in the way of educating any community. Therefore, civil society organizations have taken some responsibility to confront this challenge. In some U.S communities, they established college scholarship programs for those who have high achievement or those who come from low-income families. This article describes Kalamazoo Promise, the first place-based scholarship program in the U.S. and others that have developed since.

by Yahya Alzahrani 



In spite of a recent high level of enrollment in U.S. higher education, rising costs are a barrier to following through to completion (Bartik et al, 2016). This rising of college costs in the United States represents an obstacle in the way of educating any community. In response to the need, civil society organizations have taken on responsibility to confront such a challenge or at least to play a role in mitigating the level of its difficulty. In some U.S communities, they established college scholarship programs for those who have high achievement or those who come from low-income families (Bartik et al, 2016).  

In November 10, 2005, the superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, Dr. Janice Brown, announced the first place-based scholarship program in the U.S. called Kalamazoo Promise, which was generously funded by anonymous donors (LeGower & Walsh, 2017). There are two simple requirements for the program: being in Kalamazoo Public Schools at least since ninth grade and residing in the school district for that period. The Promise covers 100 percent of tuition and mandatory fees if the student has been in the Kalamazoo Public Schools since kindergarten and 65 percent if the student has been there since ninth grade with different coverage percentages (70-95) of those in between (Miller-Adams, 2015). This promise fund can be used anytime within 10 years after graduation in all 43 public colleges and universities in the State of Michigan for both, academic and vocational programs.


Historic Roots

Kalamazoo County is located in the southwestern part of Michigan. There are sixteen school districts in Kalamazoo County, and the Kalamazoo Public School District (KPS) is one of them. Since the 1980s, the number of enrolled students in Kalamazoo Public Schools had been declining until 2005, from about 13,000 to 10,000 students (Eberts, 2014). The level of poverty in the district was high, as more than 60 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch compared to 25 percent in the neighboring districts (Miller, 2010).

The academic achievement of students at Kalamazoo Public Schools significantly differs from their peers in other school districts within Kalamazoo County. For example, in the school year 2004-2005, the math proficiency of Kalamazoo Public Schools’ students was 52.2 percent, whereas it was more than 80 percent in Portage Public Schools. Moreover, the reading proficiency of Kalamazoo Public Schools’ students in the same period was 64.2 percent, while their peers in Portage Public Schools scored 90 percent. Even though the number of students per teacher was lower in Kalamazoo Public Schools (15.2) compared with Portage Public Schools (17.4), the educational outcomes differ greatly (Miller-Adams, 2006).



The number of enrolled students in Kalamazoo Public Schools has been declining for decades. After the Kalamazoo Promise was announced, the number of enrolled students started increasing from 10,000 to about 13,000 students in 2018. This growth indicates that about 1,000 or more new families moved to live within the Kalamazoo Public Schools district. Because of the need for more teachers, about 200 teaching jobs were created and hundreds of new houses were built. Therefore, the Kalamazoo Promise is not just a scholarship program, but also an economic and community revitalizer.

The 25 percent increase in enrolled students along with the economic burst, is not the greatest benefit of the implementation of Kalamazoo Promise. In fact, the greatest benefit of the Kalamazoo Promise is the change in the students’ view of their futures. There is a noticeable positive change in students’ behavior and attitudes. According to Miron et al (2012), about 60 percent of students have noticed a positive change in their peer's motivation to succeed (Miron et al, 2012). In fact, the Kalamazoo Promise has not only changed the students and their views of the future, but also has affected the teachers and their expectations of their students.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

This place-based scholarship program is a philanthropic action, or a voluntary action intended for the public good. The word philanthropy means "love of humanity," which explifies the intent of this program. While some people might argue that there are economic motivations behind the program, Kalamazoo Promise is still clearly philanthropic in nature and effect. Moses Maimonides, a Jewish scholar and philosopher who lived in the twelfth century, categorized charitable giving (Tzedakah) to eight levels. The highest level of his categories is the act of offering a job (Ellenson, 1996). In the Kalamazoo Promise as well as other similar scholarship programs, preparing young people to be ready for the competitive market through vocational as well as academic higher education is the cornerstone of those scholarship programs’ mission. (www.kalamazoopromise.com).


Key Related Ideas

  • Denver Scholarship Foundation: The Denver Scholarship Foundation was founded in 2006 after Timothy and Bernadette Marquez generously pledged $50 million in the form of a challenge grant to make obtaining higher education possible for thousands of Denver Public School graduates. The Denver Scholarship Foundation has awarded $36 million in the form of college scholarships to over 6,300 students so far (www.denverscholarship.org). However, it has a financial need component that family income must fall within one-and-a half times the Pell Grant limit. In fact, 70 percent of students in Denver Public Schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch, which means that the majority of students in Denver Public Schools are eligible (Miller-Adams, 2015).
  • El Dorado Promise: The El Dorado Promise was established in January 2007 after Murphy Oil Corporation funded it with $50 million. The El Dorado Promise was closely modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise. The fund can be used at any accredited college or university in the State of Arkansas and out-of-state as well. During their time at college, students need to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average to continue receiving the fund (http://www.eldoradopromise.com).
  • Pittsburgh Promise: The Pittsburgh Promise was established in 2007 after the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the largest employer in Pittsburgh, committed $100 million in challenge grant funding to support graduates from Pittsburgh public high schools, who earned a 2.5 grade-point average and a 90 percent attendance record, with $5,000 per year toward college tuition (https://pittsburghpromise.org).


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Dr. Janice Brown: Janice M. Brown is the Kalamazoo Promise Executive Director Emeritus. She worked as the Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent from 2000 to 2007. During her work as the Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent, she succeeded in convincing anonymous donors to fund an entrepreneurial place-based scholarship program (Kalamazoo Promise) that gave hope to so many families and inspired more than 100 communities in the United States.
  • Timothy M. Marquez: Timothy M. Marquez served as Chief Executive Officer of the Denver Parent Corporation, the Chief Executive Officer of Texcal Energy South Texas L.P., and the executive chairman of Venoco Inc in. In 2006 Timothy and Bernadette Marquez generously pledged $50 million that led to the establishment of the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Unfortunately, on April,17 2017, Venoco filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy along with all of these previous mentioned companies.
  • Michelle Miller-Adams: Michelle Miller-Adams is an associate Professor at Grand Valley State University and a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute. Her work focuses on the national movement of creating college scholarship programs in both local communities and states levels. Her book, The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo, is one of the first comprehensive books on the Kalamazoo Promise. She also works as a co-director of the Institute's place-based research initiative at W.E. Upjohn Institute.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research: The W.E. Upjohn Institute is a nonprofit research organization that was founded in 1932. The W.E. Upjohn Institute is devoted to study unemployment and its causes and effects in the U.S. The Upjohn Institute serves as a consultant organization for those communities interested in place-based scholarship programs. Since 2007, it has succeeded in convincing stakeholders of promise programs to learn from each other at PromiseNet conferences (https://upjohn.org).
  • Communities In Schools: Communities In Schools is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1970s by Bill Milliken in New York City.  Communities In Schools operates in more than 2,000 schools in 25 states to build relationships between adults and students that can help them succeed in life. In April of 2018, Communities In Schools was ranked as the best nonprofits to work for in The U.S. (https://www.communitiesinschools.org).
  • Grable Foundation: Grable Foundation is a nonprofit organization located in Pittsburgh with a focus to support young people to become independent and contributing members of society. With its over 300 million worth of assets, Grable Foundation focuses on 5 areas of child development starting from early childhood programs to public schools to out-of-school programs and family and community development programs (https://grable.org).


Reflection Question

Imagine that your school district has just announced a promise program. As a student, teacher, or educator, what is the most significant impact that such an announcement could have on you and on both of your personal and professional life?


  • Bartik, Timothy J., Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska. "The Merits of Universal Scholarships: Benefit-Cost Evidence from the Kalamazoo Promise." Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis 7, no. 3 (2016): 400-433.
  • Ellenson, David. "Tzedakah and fundraising: a nineteenth-century response." Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 45, no. 4 (1996): 490-497.
  • Eberts, Randall. "Longer-Term Effects of the Kalamazoo Promise: College Enrollment, Persistence and Completion." In PromiseNet Conference, New Haven, Connecticut, November, pp. 19-21. 2014.
  • LeGower, Michael, and Randall Walsh. "Promise scholarship programs as place-making policy: Evidence from school enrollment and housing prices." Journal of Urban Economics101 (2017): 74-89.
  • Miller-Adams, Michelle. Promise nation: Transforming communities through place-based scholarships. WE Upjohn Institute, 2015.
  • Miller, Ashley. "College scholarships as a tool for community development? Evidence from the Kalamazoo Promise." W orking paper. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University (2010).
  • Miller-Adams, Michelle. "A simple gift? The impact of the Kalamazoo Promise on economic revitalization." Employment Research Newsletter 13, no. 3 (2006): 1.
  • Miron, Gary, Jeffrey N. Jones, and Allison J. Kelaher-Young. "The impact of the Kalamazoo Promise on student attitudes, goals, and aspirations." American Secondary Education (2012): 5-25.
This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.