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Kalamazoo Scholarship Program Linked to Improved Student Outcomes

New research finds that a scholarship program designed to expand college access in Kalamazoo, Mich., is having a positive impact on student behavior and the successful completion of high school courses. In addition, eligible African-American students saw their grades in high school improve overall, the data show.

A research paper out this week from economists Timothy Bartik and Marta Lachowska in the Education Next journal examines the Kalamazoo Promise Scholarship

Since 2006, anonymous donors have promised to help pay for college tuition and fees for graduates from Kalamazoo public schools, with the amount depending on how long the student has been enrolled in the school system. Those who attend the districts' schools from kindergarten until high school graduation have 100 percent of their tuition covered, while those in the system since 9th grade are eligible for 65 percent of the cost.

The program has helped about 85 percent of graduates pay for their college education, according to the study. The total value of the scholarship for a typical student to attend a public Michigan college or university over four years is between $18,000 and $27,000.

The researchers, both from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, focused on the effect that the promise of financial help with college has had on high school students. They looked at data for students in grades 9-12 from school years 2003-04 to 2007-08. They examined suspension and detention rates, how many courses they completed each school year, and their grade point average. Prior to the program, about 20 percent of students received an out-of-school suspension each year and the average GPA was about a 2.0.

The researchers discovered with the advent of the Kalamazoo Promise:

  • Students earning high school credits increased by 9 percentage points;
  • The number of days a student was suspended decreased by 1.3 days in the second year after the announcement and 1.8 days in the third year;
  • Days in suspension decreased and GPA increased slightly, but the effects were not statistically significant.

Among African-American students, the researchers found more striking results.

  • GPAs for African-American students increased by 0.2 points the year the program was announced, 0.3 points the second year, and 0.7 points in year three.
  • Suspension days decreased two days in the first year for African-American students and three days in the second year.

The researchers conclude that the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship had a positive effect on credits earned and a decrease in suspension for all students, but significant effects on GPA only for African-American students. They note, however, that the program may have had a great impact in subsequent years, after the study period ended in 2008.

"In our study, students may have understood that the opportunities presented by the Promise depend on displaying better behavior in school, and therefore reacted to the Promise in ways that resulted in fewer students spending time in suspension," the study said. "Yet the students may simply not know how to achieve a higher GPA."

The researchers recommend that scholarship programs be supplemented by efforts to help students understand the link between their behavior, work habits, and grades.

Bob Jorth, the executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program, said in a phone interview that the study supports what his organization has found in its own evaluation of student performance at the high school and college levels.

About one-third of Kalamazoo Promise recipients enroll in the local Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Since the first year of the promise program, there has been a 20 percent improvement in academic performance among students during that first semester after graduation —whether looking at academic progress or grades, said Jorth.

He attributes the improvement to changes made in the high school curriculum and staffing, additional supports for students at the community college, and a change in parent and student attitudes.

"There is a belief that they can go to college. That's becoming embedded in the culture," Jorth said.

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