Let’s promise to get serious about Rockford Promise

When it comes to improving communities, raising the level of educational attainment is the whole enchilada. Rockford Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Matt Vosberg likes to use a more elevated metaphor, calling it the North Star of community development.

Vosberg is a walking encyclopedia of facts and figures about programs modeled on the Kalamazoo Promise, which offer scholarships to graduates of public schools. He’s a board member of the Rockford Promise, the organization locally that’s dedicated to the cause. Recently, Chuck Sweeny of the Register Star backed the concept in a column, saying, “One of the ways we need to transform Rockford is to become a more educated community.”

Rockford PromiseIndeed. In Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Promise (started in 2008) was the catalyst for the first population gains in the city in 50 years. The college retention rate for Pittsburgh Promise scholarship recipients is 72 percent,  5 percentage points higher than the national average. Kalamazoo saw a 25 percent increase in enrollment in its schools since its Promise program began eight years ago. Since Kalamazoo led the way, about 40 communities have started — or are considering starting — Promise-type programs.

College for All is one of RPS’ Readiness Rocks, our strategic goals. We know that continued learning after graduation is key. By 2018, nearly two-thirds of new jobs will require at least some college or advanced training.

For communities, it should be about return on investment. There’s great payoff in guaranteeing a college education for young people. A study by Northern Illinois University in 2012 found that for every dollar invested in a college-for-all scholarship program, $131 is generated in higher lifetime earnings, higher local spending and lower costs on social programs and incarceration.

A study released this month by the Upjohn Institute showed that Rockford could provide a college-for-all program for its public school graduates for as little as $5.6 million a year.

Now that the community knows the pricetag for a Rockford Promise, we should be figuring out a way to make good on it.

Mary Kaull is communications coordinator for the Rockford Public Schools. She financed both her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree with student loans, graduating in the early ’80s with five-figure debt. It was the best investment she ever made.