Free Tuition Fuels Kalamazoo Housing Boom

Kalamazoo fell on hard times when the factories closed, but the former industrial city is suddenly booming, with houses selling at a remarkable pace, thanks to an offer from some anonymous philanthropists.

Last November donors announced the Kalamazoo Promise, a fund that would pay 65 percent to 100 percent of the tuition for every Kalamazoo public school graduate to enroll at a Michigan state college or university.

With tuition ranging from $2,000 a year for a community college to more than $9,000 a year at the University of Michigan, that benefit is worth as much as $36,000 per child for four years of schooling.

As Kalamazoo's children benefit, so does the city. As housing sales cool across the nation, they've risen in this region.

Maria Buccilli moved to a Michigan city from Tucson, Ariz., with the college fund in mind.

"I want my children to take advantage of this," she said.

"We see just a steady demand, and we anticipate that demand increasing," said Greg Dehaan of Allen Edwin Homes.

His company was not building in the area until last winter when the promise was announced. In a 45-day period the company went from zero investment to a $10 million investment in Kalamazoo.

'Priceless Generosity'

Kalamazoo was once an industrial haven with a factory for Checker cabs, a timber mill, an appliance factory and a corset company.

The factories are gone, and its population of 75,000 has shrunk by 10 percent in the past 35 years. But pockets of affluence remained in the region, including the philanthropists who teamed up last year to use this college offer to stop the city's slide.

"It's priceless, the generosity, because it's going to touch more than just the people who will get an education," said Kalamazoo high school senior Andrea Smith. "It's going to touch families and generations beyond that."

Her father, Barry Smith, is a longtime resident and says this offer "definitely opened up doors for us as a family."

It is also drawing newcomers -- the school district projects 450 new students this year.

Another parent, Denise Galipeau-Singson, moved to Kalamazoo from Honolulu with her two children.

"I'm very, very positive and optimistic about this move," she said.

The city will soon welcome new businesses drawn by the obvious benefits for employees.

"We will be the education city. We will be a place where every kid goes to college," said Mayor Hannah McKinney.

They may have some followers -- officials in Kalamazoo have been contacted by their counterparts from other Michigan cities and states including Ohio, Iowa and Pennsylvania, which have an interest in making education promises of their own.

But so far, Kalamazoo is unique in this regard, and those who have donated to its promise are pretty exceptional too.

According to the Upjohn Institute, this fund will cost donors $12 million a year once four classes of eligible students have graduated from high school.

Even at that cost, in an era of chest-thumping self-promotion, the donors insist on anonymity. For them, it seems, generosity is its own reward.