STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Lake County's "promise" to make college affordable for low-income families

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

College is expensive. For some families, it’s prohibitively expensive. Several school districts are trying to follow the Kalamazoo Promisemodel by offering students money to help cover tuition costs, including one such "promise" in rural northern Michigan's Lake County.

"A dirt road with lots of bumps"

If you had asked Lake County high school senior Kaitlyn Bolles last fall to describe her thoughts on college, she’d describe it as "a dirt road with lots of bumps." Translation? "I don’t feel like I’m ready, I don’t feel like I can handle it, I don’t feel like I can afford it, and I don’t feel like I’m smart enough to go right now," explains Bolles.

Bolles has spent most of her life in the village of Baldwin in central northern Michigan’s Lake County. The bubbly 18-year old loves it here and she’s very close with her family. Since there’s no higher ed option in Lake County, she would have to move, which can be scary. Not to mention the cost. Lake County is the poorest county in Michigan; paying for college is out of reach for many families here.

"To know that I have that money, it...makes me want to go to college, makes me not so scared that I can't afford it. It takes some stress off." - Kaitlyn Bolles, Baldwin Promise recipient

But when Bolles found out about her school’s Baldwin Promise, which guarantees each senior up to $20,000 for four years of college, that bumpy dirt road she calls the path to college started to look a little smoother:

"To know that I have that money it...makes me want to go to college, makes me not so scared that I can’t afford it," says Bolles. "It takes some stress off, kind of."

The Baldwin Promise: A way to break the cycle of poverty?

Lake County’s Baldwin Promise is one of several “Promise Zones” in Michigan, and the only one in a rural county. It’s paid for by a combination of property taxes and state match dollars.

The Baldwin Promise started back in 2009, when just over a third of students in the district went on to college. Today nearly 60% of students on average go on to some kind of higher ed, thanks in large part to the Promise.

Kaitlin Bolles' class of 2013 blew those percentages out of the water: 100% of the seniors - all 15 graduates - committed to go on to some kind of higher education.

Randy Howes was instrumental is setting up the Baldwin Promise, back when he was the school district’s superintendent. He now runs a school district in a neighboring county. He says the idea behind the Promise was to get kids to "focus on a future where they could have an attainable goal to go to college and to…have a potential better job and become part of the workforce."

FACT: When the Baldwin Promise began in 2009, about a third of students in the district went on to college. Today nearly 60% of students on average go on to some kind of higher ed, thanks in large part to the Promise.

"It’s not a magic pill," says Howes. "It’s something that takes a long time to implement in order to change the attitudes and feelings and vision of the future," but he strongly believes the Promise has the potential to break "that cycle of poverty" prevalent in Lake County.

Brandy Allen knows all too well about the cycle of poverty. She says there aren't a lot of opportunities in Lake County, and "if you have a job you better keep it because it’s slim to no chance that you’ll get another one."

She earns $8.25 an hour as a cook at the local golf course, her husband works for the family business mowing lawns. Together they pull in less than $20,000 for their family of five. Allen has thought about moving; she thinks there are more opportunities downstate. But she says they're sticking it out in Lake County because of the Promise.

FACT: Less than 10% of the population in Lake County holds a college degree.

"My son has been [at the high school] three years, so he wants to stay here and take advantage of the Baldwin Promise," explains Allen. "So because of him we’re staying at least another year."

If you dole out money, they will enroll

Creating a “college-going culture” in Lake County is not going to be easy. According to the latest census, less than 10% of the population holds a college degree.

Ayana Richardson runs the Baldwin Promise and the district's College Access Center. She hopes the Promise gives the kind of boost the county needs to encourage more kids to go to college. By 2025, Richardson hopes to see "25% [of Lake County's population] have some type of college degree or credentials," says Richardson. "That'd be essentially tripling the current percentage!"

Willie Jones and Anthony Horton, two recent Baldwin High grads, are doing their part to improve the county's college-going statistics. They’re packing up their belongings and getting an apartment together in Muskegon, where they’ll start community college in the fall.

Like most of the folks they know, Jones and Horton are poor. Jones was lucky enough to score several scholarships to help cover tuition costs. Horton wasn't as lucky. Thank goodness, he says, for the Baldwin Promise. It’s his ticket out.

"If I didn’t have the Baldwin Promise, I don’t think I’d be in college, to be honest, because that money, it like helped us majorly," says Horton. "I’d probably have to wait a year or two to go to college, and that’s something I didn’t want to do." When asked if he thinks he would have gone on to college if he had waited a year or two? Horton is quick to reply: "No."

"If I didn't have the Baldwin Promise, I don't think I'd be in college, to be honest, because that money, it...helped us majorly." Anthony Horton, student

Anthony Horton wants to move to Hollywood to be an actor. His friend, Willie Jones, wants to be a famous singer. Both hope to transfer to Western Michigan University after a couple years, make it big in the entertainment industry, and then return home to Lake County.

"I love this town," says Jones. "I figure if I ever became famous or big I would come back and help, definitely. Because with a little help this place could be something major."

A great sentiment if it happens. The data show the Baldwin Promise has been key to getting Lake County kids to go to college, but it’s too soon to tell if it has any effect on whether they’ll stay in school and graduate.

To date, the Baldwin Promise has doled out approximately $85,000 in scholarship funds.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.