Rust Belt Cities Combat Education Flight with a College Promise


President Obama spoke at the Kalamazoo Central High School Commencement in 2010 — one of the schools benefiting from The Promise

What would it take for you to send your kid to the Cleveland or Buffalo public school system? Detroit?

It’s an unthinkable question for many of the Rust Belt region’s suburban, even urban parents.

Although studies are showing young professionals fleeing the ‘burbs and larger metropolises for cheap urban living in the Rust Belt, the belief that you have to succumb to the allure of suburbia’s promise of a quality education is alive and well.

To be fair, city schools tend to be some of the worst in the country. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District recorded a high school graduation rate of 56.1 percent in 2011 compared to 73 percent nationwide.

In Buffalo, the figure is 54 percent, and 25 percent among black males.

Many point to the white flight in the mid-20th Century as the main culprit for decimated school districts in American cities. And nowhere has white flight been more prominent than in the Rust Belt, intensified by the decline of the steel industry and race riots of the ‘60s. African-Americans demanded civil rights, white folks demanded big box-fueled serenity.

According to the 1950 U.S. Census, Detroit was 83 percent (1.5 million) white. Today, the percentages have flipped with black folks representing nearly 83 percent despite less than half the total population of the ‘50s. In short, it’s a loss of billions of tax dollars over six decades of staggering population decline that completely altered the fabric of Detroit society and gutted the public school system.

“The main problem, as I see it, is the crushing legacy costs from a time of high population and an eroding tax base,” explains Jim Russell, a talent geographer who studies the relationship between migration and economic development. “Rust Belt cities have to pay for yesterday’s baby boom without the dollars that would have come if the students stayed in the urban neighborhoods.”

The same depressing tale can be told to varying degrees across the Rust Belt.

Convincing young parents to stick around and trust these decimated city school districts that have had their fair share of corruption and incompetence over the years seems like an overwhelming task. But what if Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Detroit and St. Louis made their own promise? What if they promised every child who attended their respective public school system would be guaranteed a college education?

The Promise

Unveiled at a November 10, 2005 Kalamazoo Board of Education meeting, the program is a pledge by a group of private donors to pay up to 100 percent of college tuition to Michigan’s state colleges and universities for graduates of the public school system.

Since the Promise was announced, enrollment has grown by a jaw-dropping 16 percent with a larger portion of high school graduates attending college. This, in a town where one of every three students falls below the national poverty line and one in 12 is homeless, comes as a godsend. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for nearby Detroit, whose educational woes overshadow a majority of the nation, to give the revolutionary experiment a shot beginning in 2008.

20 schools in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) system – the nation’s poorest — are benefiting from a program called the Detroit College Promise. The independent nonprofit was launched by Dr. Nat Pernick, a pathologist who says he felt compelled to start the program because local leaders had been ignoring the issue. Currently, less than half graduate high school. Fewer attend postsecondary school.

The goal is to create a focus on college. To do so, each school has hired a full-time college advisor to constantly remind students of what it takes to get into college. Maintaining a respectable GPA, showcasing a commitment to community service, and lest we forget the agonizing process of filling out college application forms.

Imagine a parent who instead of walking you to the bus stop or dropping you off at school — follows you into the classroom to make sure you’re reading your textbook, and not the latest in an endless stream of puerile Facebook posts.

Although it’s too early to offer quantifiable proof of the Promise’s success in the Motor City, there’s confidence that the average student’s mindset is beginning to change.

Consistency and Commitment

The idea of a promise has worked to some extent in Pittsburgh, which instituted the Pittsburgh Promise in 2007 to offer college tuition to those who enrolled in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

The Steel City’s Rust Belt cred includes a 54.8 percent population decline since its 676,806 peak in 1950, and a collapsed steel industry.

Private donors and foundations, including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which pledged $100 million, lined up behind the Promise. Since then, the RAND Corporation – a nonprofit institution in California that helps improve policy and decision-making — found that enrollment numbers have stabilized. However, they critiqued the system, saying the program’s communication and outreach could be improved after discovering focus group students “lacked clarity on the program’s eligibility requirements, funding amounts available, and the post-secondary education institutions where Promise funds could be used.”

Some say consistency is the Pittsburgh Promise’s problem, not the program itself. For example, GPA eligibility and attendance requirements have changed in recent years. Time will tell if better outreach is the answer.

Meanwhile, Buffalo and Cleveland are undergoing their own educational initiatives.

Buffalo, a city that was once the eighth largest in the nation, recently launched their own branch of “Say Yes To Education,” a national nonprofit committed to increasing high school and college graduation rates. The city is the second to implement the program, and involves 20 colleges and universities. As of August, $17 million had been raised to fund the scholarship component of the program, and Superintendent Pamela C. Brown set an aggressive goal of an 80 percent graduation rate from high school.

Cleveland, which lost 30,000 students within the past decade, is taking a more traditional route by advocating for a $15 million school levy on the ballot this November. The bipartisan deal, negotiated mainly by Mayor Jackson, Governor Kasich and the teachers union, takes principles from across the spectrum. Failing schools will be replaced, textbooks will be updated, the school year will be longer for those who need it, teacher pay will be based more on performance than in years past, and the system will help fund reputable charter schools. To put it bluntly, it’s a bipartisan wet dream.

Opponents are, as always, skeptical of higher taxes. But polls show the measure is likely to pass on November 6.

The Cure-All

None of this is to say that instituting a Promise, a levy, or something similar is the cure-all. Students need good teachers and supportive parents. Schools need interested and enthusiastic students. A Times article found a disproportionate number of black males were still dropping out in Kalamazoo, and suggested a similar system might not work in the nation’s largest cities, like New York City where education has been a long documented problem.

But in the Rust Belt, where most cities have shrunk to 600,000 or less, there’s hope a that Promise of free college education or similarly aggressive policies will keep young professionals in the city once they start a family, improving the city’s schools one-by-one.

Jim Russell says the time is right for these programs.

“More parents are willing to put their kids in city schools,” he suggests. “While conducting focus groups of return migrants to Cleveland, there was a lot of discussion about raising families in urban neighborhoods. The will to fix Rust Belt city schools is there. Promise programs are tapping into that trend.”

About Joe Baur

Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at and on Twitter @BaurJoe
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