The Kalamazoo Promise has already had an effect at some of Michigan’s public universities. Two schools are offering cut-rate or free room and board to students graduating from Kalamazoo Public Schools. Graduates of the school district also will receive full college tuition at any public university in Michigan thanks to the anonymous benefactors behind the Kalamazoo Promise program. But while the extra help for room and board costs has a good intention, it risks wasting scarce financial aid dollars on students without true financial need and unfairly aids only those in a specific geographic area at the expense of needy students elsewhere in the state.
Recently, Wayne State University said it would pay half of the room and board costs for students whose tuition will be covered by the Kalamazoo Promise. Soon afterward, Western Michigan University – which is in Kalamazoo – announced that it will pay full room and board for any student benefiting from the Kalamazoo Promise.
While WMU officials defended this policy as a means to support their local community, they need to realize that their university receives funding from all Michigan taxpayers. Aside from the questionable wisdom of providing room and board help to students who could easily commute to Western’s campus from home, WMU’s policy is unfair to Michigan residents outside of Kalamazoo, who help balance WMU’s budget but cannot benefit from this policy.
While Wayne State’s plan is a bit more rational – no one could be expected to commute from Kalamazoo to WSU’s campus in Detroit – it still is unjust because it gives financial preference to some students based on where they live. While private programs like the Kalamazoo Promise program are free to award financial aid in a location-based manner, it would be unfair and unwise to allocate public funds, provided by taxpayers throughout the entire state, using a similar strategy.
Another problem with the proposals to give students breaks on room and board is that they misallocate funds. At a time when state universities are facing budget crises and are having to raise tuition rates, it makes little sense to provide funding without regard to financial need. While the room and board programs will aid some deserving students, they will also provide additional funds to students who have no financial need. A fairer approach would acknowledge that paying tuition and fees will not necessarily allow a student to attend college. Such an approach would direct additional funds to cover room and board to students who demonstrate financial need, regardless of their hometowns.
WMU and WSU are setting a misguided precedent; state universities should offer financial aid to those who need it most, not those with lucky addresses. Although it is commendable that WMU and WSU are making generous offers of financial aid, their programs for Kalamazoo students are an inefficient use of funds, especially considering the state’s financial situation. State universities must be mindful of students’ financial needs and not let private donors or accidents of geography influence their funding decisions.