The Promised Lands

Guaranteed college scholarships are transforming futures in several local school districts

In 2005, a year after Chuck Wilbur and others in state government started wrestling with how to use higher education to boost Michigan’s economy, Kalamazoo schools started its own universal, place-based college scholarship program for high school graduates.

“We go, ‘Wow, somebody’s listening to our message and taking it further,’” recalls Wilbur, who was senior education and communications adviser to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Wilbur, now a senior policy consultant at Public Policy Associates Inc. in Lansing, subsequently worked with his colleagues on legislation for the state promise zones — a place-based college scholarship program tied to local school districts. There are 10 promise zones statewide, including three in metro Detroit: Hazel Park, Pontiac, and Detroit.

While perks and ways to qualify vary among promise zones, the general approach is to provide “last-dollar” scholarships to recent graduates of any accredited high school. Last-dollar means the scholarship is determined after other grants and scholarships are awarded. It covers tuition and fees for an associate’s degree or its equivalent at in-state community colleges, universities, vocational, and technical schools.

Most recipients qualify for a Federal Pell grant, which is for low-income students.

The effect of the zones can be profound. In Hazel Park, which started awarding scholarships in 2012, educators say the program is transforming the culture of their schools and giving children hope for the future, even as it provides families a financial break.

“Students are talking about college now much earlier and much more often,” says Kayla Roney Smith, promise zone executive director.

The program helps students, but it’s also an economic development strategy that can help foster the well-educated citizenry Michigan needs to flourish.

“The more education you have, the lower your risk of facing unemployment,” according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. A state-commissioned report on education and economic growth concludes: “The fact that post-secondary education leads to greater economic growth is undeniable.”

Residents in all three metro Detroit promise zones compare unfavorably in education, unemployment, and income to Michiganians overall (see chart). 

Metro Detroit Promise Zones Demographics

Promise Zone/
Michigan Average


Adults with
Bachelor’s Degree

Average Per
Capita Income





Hazel Park












*Sources:; cities’ unemployment rates from SEMCOG-analyzed data from 2010-2014 American Community Survey; Michigan Dept. of Technology, Management and Budget


It’s too early to gauge the revitalization effects of the state promise zones, but it’s clear the Kalamazoo Promise, whose program is similar but separate from the state’s, helped to stabilize that post-industrial community. It’s led to growth in housing and population overall — and in the school district, where thousands of new students have enrolled, says Mayor Bobby J. Hopewell.

“We’ve had individuals move to Kalamazoo from every state in the union, specifically for this opportunity,” says Hopewell. “I think that bodes well for economic development in our city.”

In Hazel Park, more than 20 new families moved into the school district because of the promise zone, says City Manager Ed Klobucher. “It’s given every child in our community an opportunity.”

Jared Gajos, who’s studying international relations at James Madison College at Michigan State University, is one of them.

Gajos, 20, is the middle child of five, with a divorced mother who works a lower-wage job and an absent father. He always pictured himself going to college but was uncertain if he’d have the means. He didn’t know the difference between community college and a university, and he foundered when it came time to determining his career path.

“I would say from ninth to 11th grade I had 80 majors,” says Gajos.

He started to sort things out in 12th grade, after meeting promise zone director Smith, who was then advising students at Hazel Park High School. Smith told him he’d be perfect for James Madison, her alma mater, and helped Gajos assemble the means to go.

After working as an intern with Klobucher this summer, Gajos envisions himself in government.

“Don’t let your background influence what you’re going to be,” Gajos says. “You can write your own future.”

The Motor City has one of the nation’s newest place-based scholarship programs. The start of the Detroit Promise Zone was delayed until this year because of fiscal troubles, but the district’s high school graduates have benefited for three years from its partner, the Detroit Scholarship Fund, a program of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“It’s a new value proposition for living in the city that we didn’t have five years ago,” says Greg Handel, the chamber’s vice president of talent and education. “With it, we think we can keep more people in the city.”

So far, the fund has helped 1,500 Detroit high school graduates attend community college free. Most of those graduates are low-income, first-generation college-goers, and three-quarters of them test into at least one remedial class, Handel says.

Initial money for a promise zone must come through fundraising: Once the zone starts awarding scholarships, it receives half of the growth in money collected within the school district’s boundaries under the State Education Tax. However, if education tax revenues are stable or decline, as they did when property values dropped during the Great Recession, the tax capture can be interrupted.

There’s another challenge to promise zones beyond maintaining the programs’ financial stability: keeping students enrolled.

In Pontiac, for example, approximately one-third of students who go away to a four-year college don’t return for their second semester, says Henry V. Knight, a promise zone trustee. He thinks the kids aren’t ready to live on their own.

“If I had my way, I would only send kids to the junior (community) college,” Knight says. “And then say, ‘OK, if you get through junior college, then we’ll think about four year.’ ”

In fact, the Pontiac Promise board is talking about awarding scholarships for community college only, Knight says. Also, beginning this fall, the program will start reviewing student transcripts to ensure students are getting passing grades.

But even that may not be enough to solve the problem of college dropouts.

“The thing with community college is that the kids who choose it often don’t have a plan,” says the chamber’s Handel. He thinks the non-returning students may be unprepared academically and may be jolted by decreased support from college faculty compared with their high school teachers.

Like Pontiac, Detroit has a problem with dropouts, even though its scholarships are restricted to community colleges: Only 35 percent of students return for their second year.

“You can’t think you can walk out of high school into a community college and expect continuity,” says Timothy Meyer, Oakland Community College chancellor and Pontiac Promise board member.

Detroiter Marsalis Jolley, 21, defied those odds and finished OCC this year. Jolley, who’s headed to Wayne State University with dreams of becoming a psychiatrist, points out another impediment to success in higher education.

“I already knew it was going to be trouble for me because I came from a broken education system,” he says.

Now, the three metro Detroit promise zones are focusing on that issue in a collaborative effort led in part by the Michigan Center for Student Success.

In addition, the chamber is trying to lend more support. It’s trying to establish an emergency fund for unexpected expenses like car repairs, which can mean the difference between getting to class and falling behind. It also added campus coaches this year at all participating community colleges.

Alene Archie of Detroit, 20, who graduated in May from Schoolcraft College, says she could have used help from a peer or coach when she started school in 2013. She was shocked her first semester to find the tab for her all-new books at $600.

“At the time, I didn’t even know about renting books or getting used books,” Archie says. Looking for cheaper textbooks through Amazon was out of reach because Archie didn’t have Internet at home.

But, over time, Archie became much more savvy as a student, and has learned how and where to ask for help. In order to continue her business administration studies at Wayne State University where she started this fall, she got help from Monica Rodriguez, a coordinator for the Detroit scholarship fund at the chamber, who helped Archie navigate the financial aid process at WSU.

Working beyond their job descriptions isn’t unusual for promise zone leaders. “I’m the scholarship lady, not just the promise zone lady,” says Naovarath Phalavong, executive assistant within the Pontiac School District Promise Zone Authority.

Meanwhile, as promise zones work to get students into college and help them succeed, this fall the state began tracking how recipients are doing.

“I try to remind everyone … the promise is not a gift, it’s a responsibility,” says Hopewell.