Suppose more people had a shot at the education that fills high-demand jobs, boosts a region’s prosperity and attracts new business. For Rockford Promise scholars, it’s no longer a dream.
What could it mean if more Rockford residents had college degrees and certificates? Could it lead to a stronger economy, a higher quality of life and a greater sense of hope in the future? Wouldn’t that be transformative?
In the effort to strategically improve our region from within, there’s a lot riding on the Rockford Promise scholarship program. Not only is there a strong hope in its ability to enrich our community, but there also are early signs that it’s making a difference.
Rockford Promise is built upon a simple vision: Offer every public school student free tuition to a local college or university, give them the support they need to graduate and connect them with job opportunities back home.
How is that transformative? For starters, studies show college grads earn more in their lifetimes, contribute more to the local tax base, are less likely to end up in poverty, have more stable employment and report better overall health, according to the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis organization focused on accessible higher education.
The implications are huge in Rockford, a city that scores well below 100 similar communities on poverty rate, health and wellness, unemployment and other metrics, according to the data scorecard of Transform Rockford.
“We’re here to address a specific need, and that is educational attainment in our community,” says Kaylene Groh, executive director of Rockford Promise. “Currently in Rockford, about two out of every 10 residents has a bachelor’s degree, compared to the state of Illinois, which is about 4 in 10.”
But Rockford Promise isn’t just about the metrics. Local stakeholders also see this scholarship as a way of funneling high-skill, high-demand talent into fields like manufacturing, nursing, engineering and teaching. These are critical fields in Rockford’s economy, and each demands some level of college experience, either in the form of degrees or skill set certifications. Rockford Promise makes it possible for students to afford that education.
“Rockford Promise is a huge economic development tool for us,” says Groh. “It meets the needs of local businesses and it provides these students with opportunities locally, which helps our city as a whole.”
The entire premise behind Rockford Promise is inspired by another Midwestern community that’s already proving educational attainment and other metrics can rise hand-in-hand. So, what’s different in Kalamazoo, Mich.? Since 2005, the nonprofit The Kalamazoo Promise has offered every new high school graduate a full-tuition scholarship to 60 state colleges, apprenticeships, trade programs and community colleges. The past two decades have brought Kalamazoo higher property values, decreased crime rates and greater workforce readiness, Groh says.
Rockford Promise started in 2006, though it didn’t offer full-tuition scholarships until 2016.
“The early visionaries here in Rockford took a look and said, ‘What if we went to our public schools – the largest population of students we have – and we started there?’” Groh says. “What if we could promise every graduate of the Rockford Public Schools the encouragement and support they needed, and removed some of the barriers that might be in their way so they could attain a college degree and come out on the other side ready to enter the workforce?”
For all of its potential, Rockford Promise is still a long way off from Kalamazoo’s commitment. Limited resources mean there’s not enough support for every Rockford-area youth. Scholarships to two of Rockford Promise’s three partner schools – Rockford University and Rock Valley College – are funded entirely by private donors and serve a limited number of students. The third partner, Northern Illinois University, is supported by revenue from Rockford Casino, which Groh says is sufficient to cover all students who qualify.
Though the vision may not be complete, there’s already an indication that something is working. For the more than 400 young people who have already benefited, the results are life-changing for them and their families.
“They are so focused on what they want to become and why they want to do it,” Groh says. “It’s a motivation for their family. They see their single mom or their siblings and they’re like, ‘I want to be the first in my family to go to college, because these other people are watching me. I know I can be an example to them.’”
Rockford Promise scholars receive a wraparound of supports from volunteer mentors, higher education staff and Rockford Promise staff. If they need career counseling, general advice, campus resources or even housing and groceries, help is there. In turn, students are exceeding expectations for grade point averages and reporting a graduation rate that far exceeds national averages.
“They have hopes and dreams,” says Groh. “They’re very clear on that. Let’s not get in their way. Let’s pitch in and help them do these things.”
For more information, visit RockfordPromise.org and TransformRockford.org.