Oct. 21, 2022
Despite stalling at the federal level, tuition-free college plans continue to spread with bipartisan support at the state level. These plans range in scope, support, and programmatic design: New Mexico made its two and four-year colleges and universities tuition-free to all state residents; Maine made two-year community colleges tuition-free for recent high school graduates; New York implemented a free-college scholarship that has been hampered by confusing eligibility and application requirements. A closer look at Michigan’s approach to providing free tuition to some of its residents offers important lessons for the broader movement to make college affordable: removing tuition can expand access to higher education, but not all free-tuition plans are created equal.
Since 2020, Michigan has launched multiple initiatives that provide some Michiganders with tuition-free options to attend community college. Michigan Reconnect, a program aimed at increasing college attainment among adult learners, provides free tuition at in-district community colleges for state residents over the age of 25. Central to Governor Whitmer’s goal of increasing the percentage of residents with higher education credentials to 60 percent by 2030, Michigan Reconnect passed the state legislature with bipartisan support shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s second free-tuition program, Futures for Frontliners, was born out of the pandemic itself. Designed to support those that worked essential jobs during the beginning of the pandemic, Futures for Frontliners allowed thousands of frontline workers the opportunity to attend community college tuition free.
But Michigan’s work to make college more affordable doesn't stop there. Just last month, state lawmakers approved the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which will provide up to $5,500 per student per year at any of Michigan’s public universities and colleges. When implemented fully, the state will spend more than $560 million per year on the new scholarship program, effectively doubling its investment in financial aid. While this is a significant investment that should help Michiganders afford higher education, the program’s design–while unique–could limit its effectiveness.
To qualify for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, in-state students must have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC)–the amount of money the student’s family is expected to be able to pay towards college, which is calculated through the federal financial aid process–of less than $25,000. This will make the program accessible to many low and moderate-income students, but this eligibility requirement may confuse students, given it’s based on EFC rather than family income. This, combined with the varied benefit amounts of the scholarship, as well as the partially last-dollar design of the program, will likely limit how many eligible Michiganders actually benefit from the new program.
New data suggest that Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners have helped thousands of residents statewide access higher education. According to data received from the Office of Sixty by 30 within the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic opportunity, by the end of the spring 2022 semester, approximately 26,000 Michiganders accessed college through Futures for Frontliners, and nearly 19,700 received free-community college tuition through Michigan Reconnect. Given that Reconnect has only operated since the summer of 2021, and Futures for Frontliners only existed for frontline workers who worked in person in the initial stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers support an intuitive truth: bipartisan action to make college more affordable can help people access–and afford–higher education.
While Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners have made significant strides in helping thousands of Michiganders afford higher education, and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship promises to help more, the state’s programs are still limited in their ability to make college truly affordable. Rather than institute a bold, clear, and simple approach to reducing the cost of college–like making community college tuition-free–Michigan offers multiple, fragmented programs that can help some, but not all, residents access more affordable higher education.
The strength of Michigan’s approach is clear: the state has passed multiple bills with bipartisan support that will make a real difference in helping people afford higher education. At the same time, this fragmented–and often complex–approach threatens to undermine the state’s ability to reach people who need financial support to attend college. Straightforward free-tuition programs, particularly those that are first-dollar, strongly motivate people to attend college. Research suggests convoluted efforts to make college tuition free are limited in their ability to help students. Because of this, Michigan has work to do to make college truly affordable and accessible for all of its residents.
To further the state’s efforts in making college affordable, Michigan should:
Expand Michigan Reconnect to Serve Michiganders of Any Age
Despite its limitations, Michigan Reconnect has successfully allowed thousands of Michiganders to access tuition-free community college. The Michigan legislature should build off of this success by expanding Reconnect’s eligibility to serve Michiganders of any age. In doing so, the legislature can better support state residents on their higher education journeys. To make Reconnect as effective as possible, the legislature should also ensure residents from any county can access tuition-free community college, even if they don’t live within a community college district. If the legislature allows Reconnect to serve residents of any age from all parts of the state, they will make meaningful strides towards ensuring all Michiganders can attend community college tuition-free, which will bolster the state’s workforce and help thousands of residents access economic security.
Expand First-Dollar Scholarship Programs to Help Students Afford Living Costs
The Michigan legislature should also expand first-dollar scholarship programs to maximize the state’s aid to students from low-income backgrounds. Specifically, the legislature should design the Michigan Achievement Scholarship to be a first-dollar program. Doing so will maximize the program’s impact on low-income students, and will help the state meet its postsecondary education goals.
Michigan’s complex, yet ambitious, efforts to make college more affordable offer important lessons for other states. Importantly, Michigan demonstrates that while it may be challenging to provide sweeping legislation to make college free in a politically divided state, it's possible to find bipartisan solutions that make college more affordable.
However, other states can also learn how to improve college affordability plans by analyzing the limitations of Michigan’s efforts. Simpler policies that make college affordable–like making community college tuition-free for all residents–could be more effective than Michigan’s complex approach, and first-dollar programs would be more effective than Michigan’s efforts to date. In all, other states should learn from the advantages and disadvantages of Michigan’s efforts to assess how they can make college affordable for their residents.
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