Free College Tuition for All! Scholarships for Every Student
An impoverished town is offering free college tuition to all its students. by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Makayla George went on her first college tour when she was in the eighth grade. She took the requisite entrance tests on time. And in the fall of 2015, when she was a senior in high school, she applied to 13 colleges and now she will be able to attend through a free college tuition program.
She got into all of them. Then she spent weeks agonizing over which one to choose.
George, a bubbly, curly-haired sports fanatic, revealed her choice on “Decision Day,” a school-wide assembly in May during which seniors stand up, walk onto a stage, and announce the college they will be attending.
Clad in a yellow t-shirt with the words “ACCEPTED” on the front, she told the crowd, “I will be attending Eastern Michigan University.” Applause echoed across the gymnasium.
Among her graduating class, her experience was far from unique. Most of her classmates applied to multiple colleges – one of them sent out 20 applications – and most got into their top choice. All told, 90 percent of her class will pursue some form of higher education.
Those stats sound like the stuff of an elite prep school, not the public high school in the seat of one of the poorest counties in Michigan, where 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
But something fascinating has occurred in the village of Baldwin, Michigan in the USA.
It wasn’t long ago that most of Baldwin’s young people would hang around the blighted Rust Belt community after they graduated from high school, getting by on income from odd jobs or applying to become a guard at the privately run prison that is the area’s principal employer. In a good year, 30 percent of graduates would head off to undertake some form of further schooling, but many returned after a year or two, unable to afford the cost of attendance. More young people wound up on public assistance within four years of leaving high school than earned college diplomas.
“Baldwin has a long history of generational poverty,” says Randy Howes, who spent seven years as the superintendent of the school system in Baldwin. “They matriculated into what had been traditional within the families, which was a welfare existence.”
In 2005, Howes and other Baldwin leaders learned about a plan that had been unveiled in the Michigan city of Kalamazoo to offer every high school graduate a full scholarship to attend any public college in the state through a free college tuition program. The program, called the Kalamazoo Promise, was underwritten by a group of anonymous donors.
That got residents thinking.
“If Kalamazoo could find an angel to subsidize a promise, why couldn’t we do that in Baldwin?” recalls Ellen Kerans, a retired teacher who moved to the village 12 years ago and served as a volunteer tutor in the schools.
Unlike Kalamazoo, Baldwin didn’t have any local prospective angels – no big businesses, no deep-pocketed philanthropists. So Kerans, Howes, and a few others joined forces and wrote up proposals addressed to large corporations and foundations elsewhere in the state. They mailed letters to anyone they thought might be willing to donate.
They received a few positive responses. By then, however, it was the summer of 2007. Not long after, the mortgage bubble burst and U.S. stock markets crashed.
“They wrote us back saying they were not a bit interested anymore,” Kerans says. “We were devastated.” Kerans, Howes, and the others licked their wounds, but not for long. “These kids needed us,” she says. “We weren’t going to give up.”
As village leaders regrouped, they got a bit of good news. Rick Simonson, a Baldwin native who chaired President Gerald Ford’s election campaign in Michigan and later served as a legislative staffer and lobbyist in Michigan, told them about a law that the legislature had just passed aimed at creating 10 “promise zones” in the state to offer Kalamazoo-like scholarships. If communities raised sufficient seed funds, they would be allowed to sustain the scholarships by keeping a portion of annual property tax revenues that they would otherwise have to pass on to the state.
The Baldwin leaders realized they would have to raise just a few hundred thousand dollars instead of the $3 million they had thought they needed. But even that sum seemed insurmountable. Nobody in Baldwin and surrounding Lake County had any money to spare lying around. Everyone appeared to be living paycheck to paycheck, or on welfare.
Unwilling to give up, Kerans began to knock on doors. Her neighbors. Churches. The Rotary Club. The police station and the fire station.
“We had some grandparents who said, ‘I can only give $20 a month. Is that okay?’” she says. “And we said, ‘That’s more that we could expect.’” A roadside barbecue joint put out a collection jar. It raised $500.
Kerans and Simonson met with every teacher and employee of the school system. They walked out with $17,500 in pledges. Even the custodial staff contributed.
“It was amazing,” she remembers. “Everyone wanted our students to have an opportunity to attend college through this free college tuition programme that wasn’t given to them.”
People who had grown up in Baldwin, but were no longer living there, pitched in, too. Village leaders sent letters to every former resident for whom they could track down an address. Checks arrived from across the country for this free college tuition initiative.
Many in Baldwin believe the collective generosity is the result of strong community spirit and deep civic engagement. But they maintain that another, perhaps surprising characteristic of their village deserves the most credit: its racial diversity.
Baldwin is on the western side of lower Michigan, about halfway between Grand Rapids and Traverse City. That part of the state is predominantly white, save for Baldwin, whose school district also includes the neighboring hamlet of Idlewild. The district’s population is almost evenly divided between white and black residents.
Before the Civil War, Idlewild was one of the northernmost stops on the Underground Railroad. In the Jim Crow era, wealthy blacks from Detroit and Chicago, including prominent entertainers such as Nat King Cole, who faced discrimination at white-run vacation resorts, spent their summer holidays around the lake in Idlewild.
In the 1960s, schools in the area were integrated with little of the strife that ripped apart other communities, in large part because the high school’s sports teams faced virulent racism when they traveled to compete in nearby towns, most of which were all white. Epithets were shouted from the stands. Nooses were tied to football goalposts. Opposing players spat in their hands before offering them to Baldwin kids for post-game high fives.
“Those things brought us closer together,” says Deborah Smith-Olson, the chief executive of the Lake-Osceola State Bank, who grew up in Baldwin and now serves as the chair of the board of the Baldwin Promise Authority. “They didn’t do it to our black friends. They did it to all of us.”
The racial animosity from other communities, which continues to this day, according to current students, has created a distinctive environment in Baldwin’s schools. Black and white students sit together in classrooms and at lunch tables, not in separate groups. They socialize together and consider each other the best of friends.
Smith-Olson believes that when alumni were solicited to support the scholarship fund, those memories led them to dig deep into their wallets. “There was a positive association for those who went to school here,” she says.
Within a year – faster than anyone involved had expected – Baldwin had raised enough money to inaugurate the scholarship program.