19 Aug 2015

A town in Michigan pooled their money to send every high school graduate to college

The Atlantic has an article about the town of Baldwin, Michigan, and their decision to help the young people in their community afford college. According to the article, 10 years ago less than half of the small graduating class even enrolled in college, and the number of kids from that class actually graduating from college was two. Today, nearly every student that graduated high school is heading off to college this fall.
What changed was the introduction of the Baldwin Promise, a fund which in 2009 offered to pay up to $5,000 a year for any student from the Baldwin public schools to attend a public or private college in Michigan. Now $5,000 might sound like a pittance when compared to the $31,000 private college now costs annually. And it’s not much when compared to the Kalamazoo Promise, unveiled in 2005, which was funded by anonymous donors and, as a “first-dollar” scholarship, pays for 100 percent of tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in Michigan and can be added on top of Pell Grants. The Baldwin Promise is a middle-dollar scholarship, which means it comes after the student has applied for Pell Grants and institutional scholarships.
But the Baldwin Promise came with a change in the way the community talked about education, something that may have been more valuable than cash. From the day students start kindergarten, they’re coached to excel so they can go to college. In elementary school and middle school and high school, students, their parents, and the community, think about college and life after Baldwin schools. If nothing else, the Baldwin Promise effectively marketed college to a town that seemed fairly ambivalent about it before.
Getting the community to invest in its youth economically translates into a community that is invested in its future on every level. Unlike the similar (but not the same) Kalamazoo Promise, Baldwin as a community did not have an anonymous wealthy donor. In fact, Baldwin has the second-highest poverty level in Michigan. But, where there's a will and people caring about their community, there's a way:
But Baldwin did dream big. The Baldwin Promise was the brainchild of a resident named Rich Simonson, a Baldwin native who left the area for his career in politics, during which time he ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in Michigan. He returned to Baldwin to retire, and one day while having breakfast with friends at a local restaurant, Simonson came up with a proposal: Why not ask everyone they knew to give some money to the community so that every local student could go to college? His friends were skeptical, said Ellen Kerans, who was at the breakfast, but he was dogged, and went about asking everybody he knew for $500. The Kalamazoo Promise had wealthy anonymous donors, he said, but Baldwin had its community, and they cared about their town and wanted to invest in it.
He convinced school employees to donate and summer residents too. People who couldn’t give $500 up front could enroll in a payment plan. The group set a goal of $140,000, and they surprised even themselves when they raised $160,000, Kerans told me.
Before we jump up and down and say we've figured everything out, there are still major issues with the Baldwin Promise model. Part of this community push towards college has been an overhauling of the educational system and a set of discipline markers that can freeze kids out—even early on. Critics say those kids get moved out of the Baldwin school system and don't get to go on the college trips.
And there is some controversy about Promise-type programs, and even about programs like Tennessee’s that pledge free community college tuition. Most low-income students can already get mostly-free community college, after all, since they can get tuition breaks and Pell Grants to cover the cost of tuition. It’s living expenses and books that are expensive, and many students end up dropping out because they can’t afford the books, said Debbie Cochrane, research director for The Institute for College Access and Success.
The Baldwin Promise is not the answer to our country's woes but it does show how important getting a community to invest in their children's education is. At the very least it shifts priorities and creates a more coherent dialogue about what is important amongst people living in the same place.

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