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Study: The Promise of Free Tuition Boosts Student Motivation

A new study on the Kalamazoo Promise, a program that offers free state-college tuition to graduates of the Michigan city's high schools, finds that the financial incentive encourages students to work harder and aim for college.

Published this week in Arizona State University's Education Policy Analysis Archives, the study is based on interviews with students, teachers and administrators in Kalamazoo's high schools in 2008, three years after the Kalamazoo Promise began.

The research team from Western Michigan University found improvements in students' perceptions of how their teachers were working with them, such as pushing them harder to do well, and talking more often about how they should plan for college.

Students also reported changes in their own attitudes and behaviors, including skipping class less, seeking academic help more often when they need it, and encouraging their friends to "stay on the right track" to college.

When asked to reflect on the Promise's effect on school climate, though, teachers provided a more mixed picture.

They said they were excited by the incentive the Promise offered, noted that it sparked a greater shared sense of purpose in the school staff, and prompted teachers to offer more academic support to students. But they also weren't terribly optimistic that it would make much of a difference in college-going when all the complex dynamics of school and culture were blended into the picture.

And that points to a key piece of information we don't have yet about the Kalamazoo Promise and similar programs inspired by it: whether they actually send more kids to college, and how those students fare when they get there. We'll have to wait for more research—including an ongoing federal study—to fill in those blanks.

UPDATE: A couple relevant links provided by our research reporter, Sarah Sparks: Info on the federal study can be found here, and Western Michigan University's site on the Promise project is here.

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