A recent NDN survey found that 37 percent of Millennials rated the cost of a college education as a critical issue facing America. It ranked behind only the economy and education, in a virtual tie with the national debt and federal spending, on the list of issues about which Millennials are concerned. While the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" initiative has ignited a firestorm of K-12 educational reforms in states across the country, no comparable program exists to deal with the increasing costs and stagnant graduation rates of the nation's colleges and universities. To his credit, President Barack Obama led this year's successful efforts by Democrats to federalize the student loan program and expand the size and availability of Pell Grants in order to lower the burden of paying for college. But, that is only a short-term fix to the challenge of doubling the number of students who graduate from college by 2020--a pledge leaders of community colleges made at the administration's urging. To achieve that goal, America needs to develop a new, Millennial Era consensus that every young American should complete his or her postsecondary education and graduate debt free. One community, Kalamazoo, Michigan has already made that promise a reality.
Kalamazoo recognized that, along with inadequate preparation in high school for the academic requirements of college, the burden of paying for college through the current patchwork system of student loans, grants and scholarships, and state and federal government subsidies is a major reason why U.S. college graduation rates have been stagnant for the last thirty years. Currently, more than a quarter of the freshmen in America's four year colleges fail to return for their second year and the percentage is twice that for those enrolled in two-year colleges. For every ten students who start high school, only five enroll in a postsecondary educational institution, and fewer than three earn a bachelor's degree, even after ten years. Less than one-quarter of Hispanics who start college leave with a bachelor's degree and almost two-thirds receive no credential at all. Even though a record 70 percent of all Millennials who graduated from high school enrolled in college in 2009, the need for postsecondary education reforms to ensure that more of them graduate is clear.
College tuition rates have grown at 3.3 times the consumer price index since 1980.The increased cost is having a direct impact on which colleges students are able to attend. Forty-three percent of incoming freshmen in the first year of the Great Recession cited the ability to get financial aid as very important or essential in their choice of a college, the highest level ever recorded. In 2009, 70 percent of high schools reported an increase in the number of students who abandoned their "dream school" in favor of a college they could afford. Eighty-five percent of those who applied for aid said they wouldn't be able to pay for college without receiving it. As a result, for the 2008-09 school year, the federal government guaranteed or made $65.2 billion in student loans, an increase of 18.6 percent from the year before.
The unwillingness of today's older generations to subsidize the higher education of younger generations has had a particularly pernicious impact on young Americans who see college education as a way of improving their future economic circumstances. In 2007-08, just about every student from a low income family attending a community college was in debt, with an average of $7,147 in unmet expenses, even after taking into account any grants or scholarships they received. As a result, three-fourths of those seeking an associate degree or certificate were forced to work, leaving less time for study. In 2009, only 38 percent of community college students earned a degree within six years of enrolling. The country and its economy cannot afford to let this situation continue.One experiment in how to address the problem started in 2005, in Kalamazoo. There, a small group of donors (who remain anonymous to this day) created the Kalamazoo Promise, which offered any graduate of the city's public schools a four year scholarship covering 100 percent of tuition and mandatory fees at any of Michigan's public colleges or universities, provided those students maintained a 2.0 grade point average in their college courses and made regular progress toward a degree. Scholarship levels varied based only on the number of grades or years in Kalamazoo schools the student had attended, not on a determination of need or merit.
The idea began as an economic development strategy. The city manager suggested the imposition of an income tax on those who worked within the city to balance Kalamazoo's books. In an attempt to increase the city's tax base without raising its taxes, community leaders, asked residents of the area surrounding the city what would persuade them to move back inside the city's boundaries. Not surprisingly, the parents of Millennials expressed the greatest interest in living in a place that would provide a good public education for their children--all the way through college. Local philanthropists translated that desire into a simple program that offered full, four-year college scholarships to the city's high school graduates, with no requirement to repay the money or reside in Kalamazoo after graduating from college. They bet the bargain would be enough to attract families back to the city and halt the annual ten-percent decline in the schools' population. Five years and $12 million later, the bet has paid off handsomely.
Since the program was announced in November 2005, Kalamazoo has experienced a 17.6 percent increase in student enrollment and the construction of three new schools for the first time in 37 years. Dropout rates have been cut in half. Ninety percent of female African-American high school graduates have gone onto college. The school district's success was noticed by President Obama, who chose to deliver the first high school commencement speech of his presidency at Kalamazoo Central High. Calling the school a model for success in the 21st century, Obama told the senior class he was there "because I think America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes a successful school in this new century." He's right.
Money to pay for four years of college is available to each recipient for up to ten years after graduation, so it will take more time before the full effect of the Kalamazoo Promise on college graduation rates can be determined, but the program's initial success has led communities across the country to search for sources of philanthropic revenue in order to make their own educational bargain with their residents. The Kalamazoo Promise created an expectation that every public school student in the city would have an opportunity to receive a postsecondary education. More than 80 percent of those who chose to enroll in a university are still attending college. The cultural shift created by the community's commitment to the Kalamazoo Promise has also created a mini-Race to the Top with surrounding school districts, which are passing bond issues and improving their schools to compete more effectively with Kalamazoo's schools.
Now it is time for the nation as a whole to make the same promise that Kalamazoo did to all young Americans. The country should completely reform the current system of federal and state subsidies of higher education with one goal in mind. In the 21st century, every Millennial-and their children--should complete their postsecondary education and graduate debt free. Kalamazoo's promise needs to become America's promise.