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Newton Promise Could Benefit Students, City
A Better Idea: Low-Cost Tuition for All Iowans


Des Moines Register

February 11, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]
What the Newton Promise Pledges

    The Newton Promise would provide tuition scholarships to graduates of Newton High School who live in the school district. They would be good for four years at a state university in Iowa or two years at an Iowa community college. An equivalent amount would be available for tuition to a private college in Iowa.

Graduates must have attended Newton schools four years to be eligible. The amount of the grant would depend on the number of years attending. Those attending all 12 years in Newton would get 100 percent of tuition paid.

Newton, Iowa, and Kalamazoo, Mich., have some things in common. They both struggle with manufacturing job losses and worry about the future of major employers Maytag in Newton, Upjohn in Kalamazoo.

Kalamazoo gained national attention by initiating the Kalamazoo Promise, a program that will pay up to the full cost of college tuition for every local high school graduate.

Newton civic and school leaders want to do the same thing with the Newton Promise.

A significant difference, though: Anonymous private donors finance the Kalamazoo experiment. The Newton Promise would be partly publicly financed. Whether the promise becomes reality depends on the willingness of Newton voters to approve a local-option sales tax on March 28. Thus, the public benefit must be judged great enough to warrant taxing everyone to pay for it.

You've got to hand it to the city's civic leadership for thinking big. Indeed, maybe state leaders should be thinking that big, too.

Relieving families of the worry about how they're going to pay for their kids' college would make Newton an enormously appealing community in which to live.

Investing in the youth of the town might be a far better way to keep the city vibrant than, say, pouring public money into subsidies to companies.

The program in Kalamazoo is too new to judge its impact there. The graduates of 2006 will be the first to receive tuition assistance. But enrollment in Kalamazoo schools is reported to be up this year, reversing several years of decline. Real-estate ads for the city prominently mention the Promise.

In Newton, the thinking is that with the Promise, the city will always be able to offer a top-quality workforce to prospective employers. The hope is both to attract new families and to retain existing residents. Even if Maytag jobs disappear, the Promise would be an inducement for workers to seek new jobs in or near Newton rather than moving away.

The Promise conceivably could make Newton a location of choice for commuters to Des Moines. It certainly would set Newton apart in Iowa - unless other communities start doing the same thing.

Which brings up something for all Iowans to think about. Not too many decades ago, Iowa taxpayers supported the state universities so generously that tuition could be kept low enough that it was not a major barrier to college. As tax support has fallen as a proportion of the universities' budgets, tuition has soared to the point of being a huge burden to families of modest means.

If the Promise is adopted, what Newton residents essentially will be doing is restoring the low tuition for their kids that all kids in Iowa used to enjoy.

What's really needed is an Iowa Promise for every high school graduate in the state.