Friday, September 21, 2012

The Kalamazoo Promise and Bridging Community and Economic Development

The New York Times Magazine recently had a great piece looking at the Kalamazoo Promise, a program that will pay for the college educations of students from Kalamazoo, MI that attend schools in the state. The schools include both community colleges and four year institutions. It's a blanket promise so there are no means tests for income, academic performance, or even criminal records. Aside from the emotional impact of the piece, it is a mini-case study in a rather bold experiment on an explicit human capital based economic development scheme. I just wanted to share a few thoughts/observations on this kind of a program and some of the more interesting notes in the article that folks may have skimmed over.

I think the most striking aspect of the Promise to me, from a public administration or regional economic viewpoint, is how filling a major gap in funding support for individuals can allow for the building of a deep strategy. We take it for granted that resources are scarce, even moreso in these times of intense austerity, and I don't know if we ever seriously examine how scarcity limits us from making interventions or moderates expectations. It's fascinating to me how the entire school system, and community, is able to rally around an idea of students attending some kind of college and to build from that. For example, the middle school system was encouraged to reform its curriculum to refocus on core standards while allowing for more individual student attention. One can argue that the system should have done this anyway given its poor rankings in the state, but something like the promise gives everyone, from teachers to administrators to school board members, to take seriously the idea that every student can go to college and should be prepared for a college education. Simply, if you have an institutional or organizational expectation that your students will not go to college (for whatever reason you choose to believe whether that be poverty, race etc...) then there will be extreme amounts of friction from different parties about best strategies and where to go. But the guaranteed funding of these students gives this school district a unified goal to work themselves around and they focus on a core mission.

It would be an interesting set of case studies to see if you would get similar systemic cooperation around a clearly stated goal if there were, essentially, a lack of scarcity at one point. Does the recognition or even perception of scarcity encourage political infighting and institutional inertia? I don't know the literature but in Kalamazoo it seems that the promise has acted as a rallying point that everyone can get behind and not necessarily having to worry about what happens to your students after they graduate may allow school systems to focus on just providing the best education they can to their students. This is idle speculation, but I think it offers some fascinating questions in administration, management, and education.

The second major focus for me is in examining the promise as an anti-poverty program. Those of you are out there who are poverty specialists or who have done a lot of work with low-income groups may disagree with this assertions, but, at least in the article, their are multiple students that are highlighted as saying their primary impediment to pursuing a college education was financial.We often forget that college is a HUGE financial impediment and simply instructing students to accrue more debt through student loans can not only be counterproductive and harmful but provide an extra barrier as the process for getting loans can be complex, time consuming, and intimidating. While the students have to pay for their own room and board, a not inconsequential amount for most families, the promise removes a rather large barrier to higher education.

While this seems to be an anti-poverty program, it is equally interesting that it is not presented as such to the public.The article highlights how the program has spurred an entire city-wide effort at getting these students into college. This includes advocating for access to better housing and nutrition so kids can live in healthy environments and focus in school and the adoption of universal Pre-K programs. These are classic community development and poverty alleviation type interventions but it is couched in this message of increasing human capital and economic development. It's a bit disappointing that even in area like Kalamazoo that is intimately aware of the burdens that poverty places upon individuals and communities that one cannot rally the community around an explicit message of poverty alleviation or to embed ideas of economic development as explicitly including poverty alleviation goals and approaches. This divorce of issues of poverty from a lot of mainstream commentary and thinking of economic development is a HUGE gap and only reinforces the false dichotomy that separates community development folks from "traditional" economic development folks.

I think this example in Kalamazoo demonstrates how economic developers need to be more active in advocating for poverty alleviation programs and tying them explicitly to economic development goals. The evidence is still out there as to whether this approach will bolster Kalamazoo's economy, but if it does prove successful, then I pray that the economic development community, including urban economists and regional scientists, pay close attention and find more ways to study the economic and social dynamics and poverty and different ways that we can attack them while pursuing greater economic development goals. And we must also convince business leaders, at all scales and sizes, that poverty alleviation programs like affordable housing and nutrition programs are legitimate community and economic investments. This is doubly so in areas that are distressed like many areas of the Rust Belt. This has the potential to usher in a new era of politics and approaches to regional economic development and community development. I can't wait to see the results.

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