KALAMAZOO, Mich. – In one of the biggest and boldest such programs in the nation, an anonymous group of benefactors is offering college scholarships for at least the next 13 years to nearly all of Kalamazoo's high school graduates.
The scholarships will be good at any of Michigan's public universities or community colleges, and the amounts will depend on how long the student has been in the Kalamazoo school system. Those who enrolled in kindergarten would get a free ride.
"This is truly a way for dreams to come true," city School Superintendent Janice Brown said Friday.
Civic leaders were delighted by the program, called The Kalamazoo Promise, and said it could transform this largely middle-class city of 77,000 by attracting businesses and drawing homebuyers with children.
Starting with the class of 2006, the four-year scholarships will be available to all students who entered the school system in the ninth grade or earlier. The scholarships will cover between 65 percent and 100 percent of tuition and fees.
For students at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, such a program would be worth more than $7,000 this school year.
Brown would not give any details on the donors or disclose how much money they put up, but said the program was quietly in the works for three or four years. It will run for at least 13 years but may continue well after that, said district spokesman Alex Lee.
Brown said she is unaware of any other districtwide scholarship program in the nation.
"What a tremendous act of generosity on the part of the donors who made this possible and what a tremendous opportunity for all these children in Kalamazoo public schools who can now go to college and chase their dreams," Gov. Jennifer Granholm said.
Floyd Branson, 39, who has lived in Kalamazoo for about 15 years, said he and his wife have a 4-year-old daughter who will start kindergarten next fall. "It's going to be a great help," said Branson, who runs a barbeque stand in town.
Kalamazoo is a racially diverse community about 130 miles west of Detroit. The district's 10,300 students attend 16 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools and one alternative high school. About 500 students graduated in 2005 from high school, and about 85 percent of them applied to college, Brown said.
The biggest employers in the area are the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and Western Michigan, and the region is trying to attract companies to its new high-tech business park as it shifts away from its past as a paper-manufacturing center.
John T. Long III, president and chief executive of the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the scholarships will be a drawing card for new businesses. "This certainly gives us a strong weapon in that fight," he said.
Judith I. Bailey, Western Michigan's president, said the scholarships will transform life in Kalamazoo.
"It says to the world we want to be a community that values education," she said. "We want to have a strong, educated citizenry because those individuals will become, in fact, our next entrepreneurs, our next physicians, our next volunteer core."
The program could also result in higher property values, said Don Grimes, a researcher at the Institute of Labor and Industrial relations at the University of Michigan.
"It's a question of whether people are willing to come in to go to the Kalamazoo schools just for that," he said.
Granholm said she thinks so: "I'll bet the Kalamazoo system will experience unprecedented growth after this announcement."