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Whitmer’s Tuition-Free Community College Proposal Worth $30M – How Would It Work?

February 13, 2024

The Governor hopes to achieve her vision of free community college tuition for all high school seniors by adding $30 million to the Michigan Achievement Scholarship program – a larger, nearly 2-year-old program that requires legislators’ re-approval every budget season.

“Gone are the days when a high school diploma could translate into a middle class job. That is not a reality anymore, if you only have a high school diploma you should expect to live your life in poverty, and that is the way our labor market and our economy has shifted into a knowledge-based economy,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, to MIRS. 

Johnson explained why she views the Governor’s proposed $30 million add-on to the scholarship program as a realistic pursuit, and why she’s confident the scholarship program itself will be sustained in future – and potentially less economically stable – years.

Overall, she highlighted how Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a PreK-14 system (with grades 13-14 including an associate’s degree) that is “really just a necessity, just like high school is.”

“We would never think to say . . . (in) dark budget years, maybe we should stop paying for high school,” Johnson said. “Our economy has reached a point where that is also true of education beyond high school. Everyone needs at least a certification, a certificate or an associate’s degree to be able to compete.”

The Michigan Achievement Scholarship program, which Whitmer’s “Community College Guarantee” proposal would be incorporated into under her executive budget recommendations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2025, was created in October 2022 with an original General Fund appropriation of $250 million.

For the current fiscal year, $300 million was deposited for the program, as funding for it is intended to increase by $50 million each year until it is fully implemented in FY ’28.

Presently, the scholarship program provides up to $2,750 annually to recipients for two years of community college, and because scholarships have a five-year lifetime limit, a student can transfer the credits of their associate’s degree to one of Michigan’s public universities and access up to $5,500 every year in state-covered tuition.

Under Whitmer’s plan, the $2,750 yearly cap on community college scholarships would be lifted, so instead of having community college tuition heavily discounted by the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, a student can have tuition costs completely covered by the program. Also, if a student receives federal scholarships, like Pell Grants for low-income citizens, the state will cover the rest.

Another piece under her $30 million game plan is to deliver $1,000 to students with “higher financial need” to offset costs that stand as barriers to accessing community college, like transportation, child care, food and housing expenses.

Johnson expects these $1,000 payments to zoom in on students who are “fully Pell eligible,” and have their community college entirely covered by the federal grant. Johnson called it “cash assistance.”

“So ideally, it would be applied to students’ accounts, so that they actually would get a refund . . . instead of paying a tuition bill to the college, the college would write a check to the student so that they can use those dollars to pay for what they need, whether that be putting it toward rent, their cell phone bill . . . to food, to textbooks, or whatever,” she said. “We’re pretty dang close. If this were to be enacted, we would be very, very close to making the cost of tuition at a community college a non-factor in college affordability.”

According to MI School Data, the student headcount at community colleges has fallen from 347,635 in the 2017-18 academic year to 280,453 in the 2022-23 school year, representing a 19.3 percent decline. But, on the other hand, the difference between the closer 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years presents a more than 3 percent positive climb, with 9,181 additional students attending a community college in Michigan between the two more recent school years.

Moreover, $203.7 million in Pell Grant money was deployed to Michigan’s community colleges in the 2022-23 school year.

The Governor projects that her community college proposal will save more than 18,000 students up to $4,820 on tuition annually. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 95,080 high schoolers in Michigan are expected to graduate in spring 2024, and 94,990 are projected to graduate after the following school year.

Johnson detailed that the Governor’s 18,000-plus number comes from how about 16,000 individuals enroll in a community college within six months of their high school graduation, based on recent data.

For Senate Appropriations Chair Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), she appreciates the boldness of the Governor’s community college proposal, but wants it to be responsible, as well.

It’s personal for Anthony.

When the Legislature chose not to maintain the $140 million Promise Scholarship in Michigan during the Great Recession, she was a legislative staffer taking calls from crying parents when the merit-based program – once offering up to $4,000 for college to 96,000 in-state students – became no longer available to their children.

“We were literally fielding calls from parents because we were breaking our promise. It wasn’t the ‘Michigan Guarantee,’ it was the ‘Michigan Promise Scholarship,’ in which we promised kids from all walks of life that we would cover their cost of education, and then we couldn’t anymore,” Anthony said. “That sticks with me . . . is sitting on the phone, listening to a parent cry because we broke our promise as a state. I don’t want to go through that again. I didn’t want to go through it as a legislative staffer, and I (don’t) want to go through it as a Senator who’s helping to create a budget that needs to be able to fill gaps for people after year two and three and four.”

She said a revamped program could possibly look like “last dollar scholarships,” which fill a “pretty small gap” after Pell Grants and other financial aid opportunities are layered in.

Anthony added that there’s a messaging component also, where residents need to be informed that once they get a post-high school certificate, their earning potential skyrockets.

“Until we (really have) our act together as a state, there’s still too many people of all ages that just don’t see the value of higher education, and I don’t know if a free college program is the only thing we need to be concerned about,” she said. “We also need to create (a) college-going culture and lower other barriers for people. It’s not just money.”

The $30 million proposal will be separate from the Michigan Reconnect program, offering tuition-free community college opportunities to residents 21-years-old and over. The Governor recommends spending $62 million on Michigan Reconnect in FY ’25.


Article courtesy MIRS News for SBAM’s Lansing Watchdog newsletter

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