A promising idea

Our view: An Abell Foundation proposal to guarantee free college tuition to city public school students could increase graduation rates and lure jobs and the middle class back to Baltimore

December 03, 2008

Three years ago, the city of Kalamazoo, Mich., was beset by shrinking public school enrollments, high dropout rates and a loss of manufacturing jobs that crippled efforts at economic development. The city's response: Rally local businesses and foundations to create a new kind of scholarship program that guarantees free college tuition to every public school student in the city, regardless of race or income.

The program, known as Promise, aimed to attract middle-class families and jobs back to the city, keep the best students in state schools and encourage academic achievement at both the secondary and college levels. The results were immediate: Graduation rates went up, college enrollment increased and families with children began moving back to the city to take advantage of savings that could reach six figures in college tuition costs. Since then, half a dozen other cities have adopted similar programs, including Pittsburgh, Denver and El Dorado, Ark.

Now the Abell Foundation, long a champion of innovative education reform, wants Baltimore to take a leaf from Kalamazoo's book and establish a similar scholarship for its public school students. The program would provide free tuition to any state public college or university for every student who graduates from a city public high school, maintains a C average and meets college entrance requirements. The goal would be to make higher education attainable for many more young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, so they can compete in today's knowledge-based economy. A well-educated work force also would help attract businesses and jobs back to the city and spur economic development.

The catch, of course, is who will pay. The Kalamazoo school system is a fraction the size of Baltimore's, and the $4 million annual cost of its Promise scholarship is funded entirely by local businesses and foundations. The Abell Foundation estimates that duplicating the program here could cost up to $43 million annually, a sum that might tax even the most generous local philanthropists. Recognizing that resources are finite, it suggests two alternatives: targeting the grants to community colleges or limiting them to the city's neediest families. That might dramatically reduce the program's cost - to $4 million to $6 million a year - but it would do little to attract middle-class families back to Baltimore.

The state could fund the program with revenues from the lottery and slots. City officials could argue that a better-educated work force and economic development ultimately would reduce the city's reliance on Annapolis. Or Baltimore might choose to use a share of its slots revenue to create a scholarship that gives real incentives for middle-class families to move back to the city. Couple that with a reduction in the city property tax rate and Baltimore would have a winning investment.

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