Bill to expand Michigan promise zones

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 - 7:55pm

Michigan state legislators are pushing to expand a program that currently provides free undergraduate college tuition to certain students in 10 of the state’s school districts.

Senate Bill 0539, which passed the state Senate last week, would allow for the establishment of more “promise zones” in the state of Michigan. The zones are modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise, which guarantees scholarships at in-state public colleges to students in Kalamazoo who have been enrolled in the school district for a set number of years.

Established in 2005, the program was the first of its kind in the United States. Current legislation only allows for 10 promise zones in the state of Michigan. The bill proposes increasing the maximum number to 15. There are 10 current promise zone districts in the state, which include Baldwin Community Schools, Battle Creek Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools, Jackson Public Schools, the Lansing School District, the School District of the City of Pontiac and the Saginaw School District.

Promise scholarships cover tuition costs beyond federal financial aid awards. Those scholarships are funded through private contributions and a mechanism called tax capture — in which the promise zone captures some of the growth in the State Education Tax.

The amount of tuition coverage students receive through the Kalamazoo Promise varies based on how long they have been enrolled in school in the district. For example, students who attended kindergarten through senior year in Kalamazoo Public Schools receive 100 percent tuition coverage, while students who attended from only sophomore year on are not eligible for any coverage. On top of the enrollment requirements, students must maintain a 2.0 average GPA while in college.

Students’ eligibility and the amount of tuition they receive varies depending on the promise zone. Like in Kalamazoo, the number of years a student has attended school in the district, as well as whether or not they have achieved a certain GPA, are among the factors employed as determinants.

Michigan communities with a poverty level for families with children under the age of 18 that meets or exceeds the state average, can hold a public hearing and submit a request to the state government for promise zone consideration.

The new legislation would not change the way promise zones are chosen in the state of Michigan, but simply increase their number.

State Sen. Goeff Hansen (R–Hart), who sponsored the legislation, hopes it will increase college enrollment in the state of Michigan.

“Passage of this legislation will increase access to higher education opportunities for eligible students across the state,” Hansen said in an e-mail to The Michigan Daily. “This will be another tool for our students to be part of a more educated workforce and be able to compete in a global economy.”

For context, Washtenaw County had a poverty rate of 15.4 percent in 2013 — slightly below the state average of 16.8 percent, meaning it’s likely districts in the county would likely qualify for promise zone consideration.

When the state program was created in 2009, they received 14 requests to fill 10 slots. Many of the promise zones created through the state bill after the Kalamazoo Promise — such as the Baldwin Promise Zone — focus on funding two-year degrees versus four-year programs.

Studies on the effects of promise zones show the program had positive impacts on communities in regard to the economy and district enrollment. A 2007 Center for Local, State and Urban Policy study through the University was performed too early to say definitively that the Kalamazoo Promise has had a positive impact on the local and state economy, but positive indicators — such as the likelihood for students who go to college in-state to remain there post-graduation — are noted in the report.

The study found an overall increase in enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools. Further, minority enrollment increased at a greater rate. The CLOSUP study also indicated students who participated in the Kalamazoo Promise were more likely to have college aspirations.

“The researchers concluded that the Promise (a) increased the likelihood of students applying to college, (b) increased the likelihood of students applying to Michigan colleges and universities, (c) permitted students to choose higher-quality postsecondary institutions and (d) increased the likelihood of low-income students applying to a 4-year college and decreased the likelihood of these students applying to a 2-year college,” the study says.

Meredith Billings, a doctoral candidate in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, is working to evaluate promise zones for her dissertation. She said her research so far coincides with many of the findings in the CLOSUP study.

“I think the idea of the MI promise zones are definitely innovative given that they are targeted at communities that have a higher percentage of families living in poverty and tend to have lower college-going rates than other communities in Michigan,” Billings wrote in an e-mail to the Daily. “The hope is these promise zones will be able to foster a college-going culture within the local schools and be able to revitalize the community through increasing the education levels of its residents and attracting new businesses to the area.”

After Michigan voters banned the use of affirmative action, colleges like the University have struggled to enroll underrepresented minority students. According to Fall 2015 data from the Office of the Registrar, Black enrollment at the University is 4.1 percent. The University has recently launched several new scholarship programs of their own with the aim of enrolling a more diverse class of students.

“Passage of this legislation will increase access to higher education opportunities for eligible students across the state,” Hansen wrote. “This will be another tool for our students to be part of a more educated workforce and be able to compete in a global economy.”