#546 – The Town That Decided to Send All Its Kids to College

Posted on | The Agurban

In The Agurban, we have talked about “Promise” programs before, but we always love to learn about new programs starting. “Promise” programs promise to pay a portion or all of the educational expenses of their high school graduates who attend college after their high school graduation, whether it be at a four-year university, a community college, or a technical/trade school. These programs are funded in a variety of ways and generally have specific criteria, such as attendance at a public college or university, enrollment in the local school system for a specified number of years, etc. The most recent Promise program we have learned about is in Baldwin, Michigan. Baldwin has a population of 1,208 and is deep in the heart of the Manistee National Forest, in Lake County. The county PCI (per capita income) is $16,202 (state PCI = $25,681) and the mean travel time to work is 25.2 minutes. Some might say Baldwin is in the middle of nowhere. Following is an excerpt from a post that originally appeared on The Atlantic

The Town That Decided to Send All Its Kids to College

BALDWIN, Mich.—College was never much of an option for most students in this tiny town of 1,200 located in the woods of the Manistee National Forest. Only 12 of the 32 kids who graduated high school in 2005 enrolled in college. Only two of those have gotten their bachelor’s degree.

That was just a decade ago. Now, nearly everybody who graduated from the high school here in June is off to a four-year college, a community college, or a technical school. Kindergarten students talk about going to college. High schoolers take trips to campuses around the state and, at a raucous assembly each spring, reveal to the school which colleges they’re going to attend.

So what changed? How did one of the poorest counties in Michigan, a state that’s struggling, accomplish such a turnaround?

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.

The school system is tiny, with the elementary, middle, and high schools located on one campus, the type of place where a kid on the football team can change clothes during halftime to take up his place playing drums in the marching band.

Baldwin is the county seat of Lake County, where 27.9 percent of residents live below the poverty level, according to census data. That’s the second-highest poverty level in the state of Michigan. Just 8 percent of people living in Lake County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 25 percent of the state of Michigan.

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.

Simonson passed away in 2012 and left an endowment that supports the Promise Fund.

The effort came around the same time that the Michigan legislature and Governor Jennifer Granholm passed a bill creating 10 Promise Zone designations, low-income communities, in Michigan. Being designated a Promise Zone by the state allowed districts a unique tax-capture mechanism that enabled the districts to keep revenue that otherwise would have gone to the state and instead give it to students in the form of college scholarships. Simonson successfully lobbied to have Baldwin designated as one of the 10 districts.

The Baldwin Promise is more than just $5,000 a year for four years of college. It brought with it a complete change in how the town viewed education. Just as elementary school and middle school were in Baldwin, college was a right for everyone.

The changes go down to the kindergarten level. Now, when 5-year-olds enter Baldwin Schools, they’re tasked with creating an image of themselves, wearing a mortarboard, made out of construction paper. Those faces, black, white, and brown, are pasted onto a giant  banner, “College begins with Kindergarten,” in the elementary school’s main hallway.