Using the Kalamazoo Promise to Make a Case for 4-Year Tuition Free College
Sen. Warren’s announcement of her plan to cancel considerable levels of student loan debt and to develop a nation-wide tuition-free college plan has generated public discussion centered on higher education we have arguably not seen since the announcement of America’s College Promise (ACP) in 2015 by the Obama administration. The reactions to Sen. Warren’s plan were predictable as those in opposition immediately evoked “free-ride” rhetoric. One recently prominent example of this “free-ride” rhetoric was used by Sen. Klobuchar to brush aside Sen. Warren’s plan. At a recent CNN Townhall, Sen. Klobuchar stated that she wishes she could “staple a free college diploma” to the chairs of those in attendance and by proxy any American — then joked about the statement.
This language suggests that tuition-free college students do not earn their degrees, instead, someone simply handed (“stapled”) these students their credentials. This commentary aligns with my prior models developed from the online reaction to ACP and indicates that Sen. Klobuchar may not truly see tuition-free college as a good investment. Although Sen. Klobuchar has previously offered support for 2-year tuition-free college, her response to Sen. Warren’s plan may allow us a peek into her foundational beliefs about broader tuition-free college policies and the students receiving these scholarships. Additionally, she has aligned herself with rhetoric often used to undercut plans she claims support for, such as Pell expansion.
I want to push against her narrative surrounding 4-year tuition-free college using research from the Kalamazoo Promise (KPromise). KPromise is one of the nation’s earliest placed-based tuition-free policies and is often cited as a foundation for many tuition-free policies (Promises). Although the exact terms of Promises vary and KPromise remains one of the most generous policies implemented, placed-based Promises are generally founded upon four intentions: (a) provide financial aid to students based on location, ignoring merit and need, (b) expand access to postsecondary education, © develop a college-going culture within the scholarship area and community, and (d) provide financial and non-financial returns to the region and community.
Promises include everyone, not just disadvantaged students or students hailing from working class or middle-earning families — an intentional feature as without the incentivization to more affluent families these policies would quickly lose political steam. Furthermore, Promises aim to help make college more affordable for everyone, as working and middle-class students are being squeezed out of college affordability under our current schemes. As some advocates and critics of Promises have illuminated, when examining these policies using a narrow lens, some Promises may not be as equitable to low-income students as previously imagined. However, W.E. Upjohn researchers have found that KPromise specifically widened access to disadvantaged students, encouraged more disadvantaged students to choose enrollment in a 4-year public institution, and increased estimates of the percentage of students from Kalamazoo Public Schools earning any college credential.
Although research on Promise students’ college outcomes remains relatively rare, my emergent research provides evidence of the performance and persistence of KPromise students enrolled at Western Michigan University (WMU) compared to non-Promise WMU students who attended a Michigan public high school. This research illuminated important demographic differences between the MI public-school students and KPromise students. On average, KPromise students were economically disadvantaged as determined by permanent residency zip code household adjusted gross income ($44,000 v. $57,000) and high-school free and reduced lunch percentage (50% v. 22%) — which is also an indicator of academic disadvantage. Furthermore, a lower percentage of KPromise students identified as White (48% v. 78%). When I attempted to apply more advanced statistical analyses to match non-Promise students to KPromise students for a better comparison, I could not achieve balance. Therefore, further illustrating the uniqueness of these students enrolled at WMU, leaving my team to wonder whether similar students do not attempt to access the institution or if the institution does not enroll them.
Having noted these fundamental differences between KPromise students and other WMU students from public high schools, we find that KPromise students tend to experience lower performance determined by: college GPA (2.44 v. 2.69), academic warning (41% v. 31%), and academic dismissal (20% v. 13%) — these differences are all statistically significant. We believe KPromise students are more likely to experience an academic dismissal because they remain enrolled in the institution for more terms (10.06 v. 8.66) — illustrating an intent to attempt to persist whereas non-Promise students likely self-select out at higher rates. The intent to persist was captured in qualitative inquiry where students professed a strong desire to keep going for their community and because they feel a sense of ownership in KPromise. Whereas some may use this data to suggest KPromise students may be wasting time and money, I suggest a counternarrative. I see this finding highlighting an operational flaw of an institution who normally serves more affluent students and may not yet understand how to better serve KPromise students.
This point is critical — descriptively KPromise students are statistically no different than more advantaged public-school students regarding 6-year degree attainment (49% v. 53%). This graduation rate is significantly higher than the expected 4-year degree attainment rate of students residing in the second earning quartile (20%), where KPromise students on average reside — and is higher than students in the third quartile (41%). This graduation rate should be seen as an absolute achievement. We expect to see this rate climb as the community continues to rally around KPromise and parents are able to pass on their financial advantages and first-hand college experience to their children (see human capital and social capital theory studies for justification). Of course, it will be some time before anyone can examine these effects.
Moreover, obtaining a nearly 50% graduation rate is increasingly astonishing when considered in the context of the material hardship many KPromise students face. Higher education researchers have become increasingly concerned over college students’ basic needs and their effects on students’ experience and performance. A nation-wide study found that for students enrolled in a 4-year institution — 48% indicate experiencing any level of food insecurity, 36% experience any housing insecurity, and 9% experience at least one episode of homelessness. I implemented a survey capturing KPromise students’ basic needs. Using the same scales and timeframes employed by the national-wide study, my team found that 77% of enrolled KPromise students report any level of food insecurity, 52% report any housing insecurity, and 14% report any homelessness. These findings support our hypothesis that because KPromise students flow into college from a school district that has a high percentage of students on the free-and-reduced lunch program and enrolls a high count of homeless students, these situations would follow many into college. For reference, 42% of non-KPromise students at this institution claim any level of food insecurity. Illustrating, despite remaining disadvantaged throughout college KPromise students illustrate high degrees of fortitude. Likely, the financial and psychological safety-net provided by the KPromise scholarship allows students to attain degrees at a statistically similar rate as their more advantaged counterparts. Essentially, without KPromise, many of these students would likely not persist to degree attainment at this, or most, 4-year institutions.
Next, aligned with the “skin in the game” discussion point often accompanying “free-ride” rhetoric, tuition-free policies do not equate to leaving college debt free. In my research, half of KPromise students had student loan debt ranging between $3,000 to $20,000. Students with the most debt were those who ultimately had to pay for tuition and fees after violating the terms of KPromise, usually after breaching the 130 credit hour limits — either due to prior performance or switching majors while being an advanced standing college student. The remaining KPromise students with debt covered rent, books, and transportation with loans, as would be expected. For individuals suggesting students should just work “harder” during college, the average KPromise student enrolled in WMU works between 16–20 hours per week with 76% of the surveyed sample claiming to work while in college. Survey data indicates non-Promise students at this institution work 16 hours per week, illustrating that KPromise students spend equal time working while in college, and are not complacent or “lazy.”
Promise policies alone will not provide complete equity in higher education — nor do are they designed to, at least right away. Instead, Promises provide immediate opportunities to underserved students in accessing college, widening college choice and helping to make college more affordable for everyone. Both dominant political parties have generally agreed these are important outcomes to focus on. In totality, the researchers at the W.E. Upjohn Institution and my team at WMU are generally finding positive outcomes regarding KPromise’s connection to access and degree attainment, especially for 4-year institutions. I believe these findings should be considered when deciding whether a national Promise policy is a priority, considering how to structure the program, and estimating rates of return — see Bartik, Hershbein, and Lachowska for rates of return estimates of KPromise.
The notion that by promoting a 4-year tuition-free policy, politicians would be “stapling degrees” to anyone’s chair is outright offensive and ignores the success of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship and the students it serves. By outright dismissing the value of developing a national 4-year tuition-free policy without understanding or examining potential benefits, Sen. Klobuchar was likely being “straight” in that she may not truly believe that tuition-free policy is the pathway forward. Certainly, she may advocate for 2-year tuition-free college, which I hope the country will adopt. However, her response leads me to believe that an alignment with tuition-free college is a disingenuous stance intended to rally voter support.
Dr. Daniel Collier earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign in Higher Education from the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership. Daniel currently serves as a Sr. Postdoctoral Research Associate for the Center on Research for Postsecondary Instruction at Western Michigan University and is the Director for Research on Success at WMU. Daniel leads and conducts research on the Kalamazoo Promise, student loan debt, and higher education policy. Follow Daniel at @Dcollier74 on Twitter or email him at Daniel.Collier@wmich.edu.
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