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By Jeff Pett, Fleetwood Group, Inc.

Here in west Michigan we had the privilege of having President Obama give the commencement address at Kalamazoo Public High School this month.  It was quite an event.  It brought a lot of excitement along with extensive local and national news coverage.  For some people the most significant take-away was the poor young man who was desperately fighting off sleep just over the president’s shoulder.  Before the speech was over there were new Facebook accounts and YouTube video clips highlighting his struggle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not vote for Mr. Obama.  However, he IS our president and he WAS in west Michigan, so I watched the event in the comfort of my living room.  The President did a great job overall, and he delivered a very good speech.  And, in defense of the dozing choir member, those kids were in that gym forever before the president arrived.

What you may not know is that Kalamazoo Public Schools is the recipient of the “Kalamazoo Promise”, a fund created by anonymous donors that virtually guarantees every high school graduate will have access to a fully funded college education.  (The Upjohn Institute is doing an ongoing study of this experiment.  You can read more at http://www.upjohninst.org/promise/index.htm .)

As impressive and as heart warming as the ceremony was my thoughts since that night have centered on rethinking my preconceptions about what motivates our youth to push to succeed versus settling for less.  Here at a not-so-well-to-do public high school where a college education is now a very attainable thing, it appears that the students (and parents) are pushing more than ever before to get to college.  It made me think back on what it was like for me to grow up, and what motivated me to go to college.

In my family, it was clearly expected that you WOULD go to college.  Both my parents had graduated from college, my mother getting an advanced degree, and all of my siblings getting at least a college degree, with three of the five of us achieving either a masters or a doctorate.  There were no “if you go to college” discussions.  It was, “you better get your grades up or you won’t get into college!”  The way that was said you somehow knew that there could be no worse fate!  For me going to college would not have been automatic if not for my family expectations, and if we had not had the means (my parents were relatively well off… but they still made us pay for half of our college costs.)  I was not a model of maturity, and sports and girls were much higher on my list of life’s most important pursuits.  My grades reflected what it took to stay eligible for sports.  Period.

What happens if you DON’T live with that expectation, either at home or at school?  What if you knew your parents couldn’t afford it?  What if it was a joke to even THINK about going to college?  When you know you do not have access to what your other classmates do, where do you focus your energy?  Possibly NOT in the classroom, but in the kinds of things that work to negatively affect your life.

Since 2006 the students at Kalamazoo Public Schools have had the cost barrier to a college education removed.  The community seems to have rallied to the call and is further reinforcing the expectations for a higher education.  The students are now MOTIVATED without barriers.  It appears that a larger number of the students there are now applying themselves to prepare to get into college.

What will happen in that community over the next decade or two with a larger proportion of the population that has had the benefit of a college education, and the prospect that their children will ALSO have that benefit without breaking the bank?  Do you suppose the community will flourish?  Do you suppose that the greater good of that micro-society will improve?  Will that community attract people and businesses?  Yes, I tend to think so.

If that is the case, should we as a larger national society consider removing the financial barriers to a higher education for our young people?  Would we be better off as a nation?  Again, I tend to think so.

By the way… no, I am not a liberal.  I like to think I am an independent thinker, but I know that I am actually pretty conservative.  The government definitely has a legitimate role, but my thinking is that it should be limited to the “vital few” things that we need to support a solid, safe, good society.  Government should not overreach, overtax, or over regulate its citizens.  We should work to recreate a society where its citizens can freely flourish with minimal “help” from the government.  Most of what the federal government has approved for spending over the past 18 months I would have voted “no” on.

However, if assuring access to four years of a college education would lift the hopes and dreams of a significant segment of our young people, maybe we should go there.  If encouraging the achievement necessary to succeed academically at the “next level” from high school brought the prospect of a more highly educated electorate, maybe we should reprioritize where we spend our tax dollars.  If we eliminated the costs associated with the parental burden of saving for a college education for their kids, maybe that would be a better way to “level the playing field” among families of different means.  Maybe that would create more equal opportunity.  Maybe it is time to raise the bar of societal expectation to a higher level than a high school education.  We do have within our borders a commodity that most of the rest of the world covets, but we do not make it realistically accessible to a significant portion of our population.

Maybe funding higher education should be one of those “vital few” things our government SHOULD provide.  Maybe our country would be stronger and more competitive if we did more to educate our young people while taking away a major source of wealth-induced disparity of opportunity.

The unprecedented experiment of the Kalamazoo Promise is going there, and early indicators are that it may be doing all of the above.  This experiment is one “test tube” we should be watching closely.

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