Thursday, December 02, 2010

Angels Among Us

Wealthy Americans for years have bestowed gifts of higher education on individuals and groups of students whose families’ modest means could not finance college attendance. I know of two such situations from my teen years in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The work of financial angels in each case got similar results, but the details of how help was given were quite different.

Tom Higgins was a classmate and good friend who probably was the best basketball player in the history of our high school. In one game, against a school with three times the enrollment of ours, Higgins scored 46 points while the entire opposing team had 44. He was twice named to the all-conference team as a center, although he usually played guard or forward, which he could do equally well.

Higgins was slightly above average as a student. He worked hard in school, but academic scholarships would have been beyond his reach. Attendance out-of-state at an excellent university would have been well beyond the financial reach of his family.

A prosperous Notre Dame alumnus made sure Higgins attended his school. The alum, coincidently, lived in Merrill. The Merrill High School team was the one Higgins single-handedly outscored. The alum paid all of Higgins’ school expenses not covered by his athletic scholarship. “All” meant every single thing, including costs of clothing and transportation from school to home during breaks. When Higgins thought he had met the girl of his dreams (as it turned out, she wasn't the one), the sponsor financed a beautiful diamond engagement ring.

The alum’s good work was far from anonymous. Before Higgins left to enroll at Notre Dame, his sponsor threw a party at his Merrill home for anyone the basketball star wanted to invite. I was among the invitees, but I couldn’t attend. Those who did said it was a big, grand, and probably very expensive party.

As a freshman, Higgins was the sixth man on the Notre Dame varsity basketball team playing guard. He was on the squad again during his sophomore year. But then, for reasons unknown to me, he dropped out of the basketball program. His angel, however, didn’t drop out. He continued his financial support until Higgins graduated. Higgins had a successful business career; he became a vice president of a firm operating in the Green Bay area.

Higgins died while a fairly young man, which is why I feel free to write about his personal situation. The other classmate I knew who had an educational angel is very much alive, and I think he might be embarrassed if I identified him. So I’ll call him Sam.

Sam was an above-average student who was serious about hitting the books. Sam’s family was no more prosperous that Higgins’ and Sam had no chance of any financial help with higher education expenses from relatives.

A Tomahawk businessman, who insisted on anonymity, paid most of the expenses, including out-of-state tuition, for Sam to attend a well-regarded university in a Midwestern state. Sam graduated in four years and enjoyed a long and successful career in a technical field.

The businessman had no direct connection to Sam or Sam’s family. He just learned of a deserving young man and stepped in to make sure Sam had an opportunity for advanced education. I know the identity of the angel, because my father was well-acquainted with him. Dad slipped once and told our little family about the educational sponsorship. None of us ever revealed the identity of the angel, and I won’t now.

The two angels from my youth did good things. I’m sure there have been many individuals like them in other places. But when we moved to southwestern Michigan, I learned how educational angels can accomplish incredible things when they decide to combine their efforts.

Their work is called The Kalamazoo Promise.

Five years ago, a group of anonymous donors, assisted by a local educator, launched a program that provides free tuition to any public college or university in Michigan for qualified graduates of Kalamazoo public schools.

To date, the unidentified angels have given $21 million dollars. Individual gifts can cover tuition for a full four years. They can range from a smaller percentage of total costs up to 100 percent, depending on how long the student’s family has resided within the school district. Students must perform satisfactorily to qualify, and if they do, they must maintain 2.0 grade point averages in college to continue in the program.

Results of the promises kept have been little short of amazing. Since 2006, the first school year for Promise students, some 1,900 high school grads have begun receiving advanced educations most would not have been unable to afford. Fifty-six have graduated with bachelor’s degrees.

The majority of tuition money has gone to the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Western Michigan University, but 15 schools are eligible, and Promise students now are attending 14 of them.

The students are graduates of Kalamazoo’s two public high schools and three alternative schools. Unlike many other school districts in Michigan, especially urban districts, enrollment in Kalamazoo schools is increasing. Educators report significant strengthening, year by year, of a college-going culture. Advanced Placement enrollment has increased by 71 percent in the past two years, and the rate is even higher for African-American and Hispanic students.

Observers say the Promise has changed the entire culture in the Kalamazoo public school system virtually overnight. Every student who performs satisfactorily has a chance to go on for higher education. Students are working for, and taking advantage of, the opportunity. Eighty-five percent of eligible white students have used the Promise. Eighty-four percent of eligible African-American students have.

No one claims the Promise is a cure-all for improvement in the public schools, but it brings hope. Children who never could have considered higher education now routinely make it their goal. That seems to be a cornerstone anchoring many other programs for positive change in the schools.

The Kalamazoo Promise structure (for details, go to is adaptable to other districts, and similar programs have begun to spring up around the U.S. Some are supported by tax dollars; some are financed by various combinations of individual and business donations. Some are public-private partnerships. All promise hope.

Great things can happen when angels flock together.


schmidleysscribblins said...

Wonderful tribute. I read once that Richard Nixon had supported a couple of black kids in college, which goes to show that some angels are very well disguised.

Tomahawk. I know it. My family vacationed there in the 1950s. We would drive up from my grandparents home in Fon du Lac. Great fishing as I recall.

Kay Dennison said...


Dick Klade said...

Right, Schmidley, the fishing was great. Do you happen to recall where your family stayed while vacationing there?

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was good. It’s nice to hear some good things instead of all the bad that we get on the news.

schmidleysscribblins said...

I wish I could recall the name of the place. I knew it for years because I corresponded with the daughter of the owner (those were the pen pal days). I think her name was Lucy, but that is as far as my memory takes me.