How A Small Michigan Town Is Sending All Its Kids To College

The Baldwin Promise has caused a surge in college enrollment numbers.

Baldwin has never been a place particularly associated with high academic achievement.

The small, rural northwestern Michigan town of 1,200 residents is the county seat of Lake County, where only 8 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree compared to 25 percent of the state overall. Poverty, too, is high -- the county is one of the state's poorest.

But none of that has stopped the residents of Baldwin from pushing to make college an accessible reality for the youth of their community. The Atlantic reports that the small town banded together to raise funds for a scholarship program -- called the Baldwin Promise -- that offers up to $5,000 a year for any public school student in the town to attend either public or private college in Michigan. It's not a full ride, but is intended to cover expenses beyond grant funding a student may receive after filling out their FAFSA.

The program was introduced in 2009 when the district was chosen among the state's 10 “promise zones.” It has made a big impact on the number of Baldwin Senior High School graduates who are continuing their education. While less than half the school’s graduating seniors in 2005 moved onto college, a decade later, almost all of them are. 

“What I like about the promise is it puts it back in the kid’s lap,” Paul Bigford, vice chair of the Baldwin Promise Authority Board, said in a 2011 YouTube video on the program. “If you can get the grades and if you can get into college, the promise will help you pay for it so there’s not that wall there for them.”

Scholarships are just part of the reason the Baldwin Promise is showing signs of success, The Atlantic argues.

As a result of the initiative, a broader cultural change is also at work in the community. Children in Baldwin are now being taught from the time they are kindergarteners that college is a milestone within their grasps. A college access center at the high school offers college tours and visits from college representatives in addition to helping students and its coordinator, Ayana Richardson, also created a celebratory Decision Day assembly where seniors announce which schools they’ll be attending. 

Of course, getting more students to enroll in college does not mean they will graduate -- only two of the 14 Baldwin students who enrolled in college in 2010 have received bachelor's degrees, according to The Atlantic -- but there is evidence that such programs should positively impact graduation rates as well.

The Kalamazoo Promise, which relies on wealthy anonymous donors and originated the "promise" program model in 2005, appears to be doing just that.

According to a study released by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research this summer, promise-eligible students are a third more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than comparable pre-promise students. The program also has a large return on investment -- an estimated $4.60 in benefits per $1 spent, the Kalamazoo Gazette reported.

There are currently a few dozen "promise" programs throughout the country.


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