Gretchen Whitmer wants free college in Michigan. Can that cut skills gap?

Participants and staffers of the Detroit Promise scholarship program stressed the need for counseling and other aid Wednesday. They are, from left to right: Ashley Robinson, a college coach at Oakland Community College; Ronnie Foster, a Detroit Promise scholarship student at Macomb Community College; Preston Welborne El, a Detroit Promise scholarship student at Oakland Community College and Monica Rodriguez, director of children and youth services for the City of Detroit Mayor’s Office. (Bridge photo by Chastity Pratt)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s roads plan is getting no love from Republicans, but another campaign promise –  providing two years’ of free tuition – is quietly gaining some bipartisan support.

Results from a Detroit study released Wednesday, though, beg the question of whether simply providing free tuition is enough to help students succeed in college.

Four bills introduced last week would create the Democratic governor’s proposals, the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship and Michigan Reconnect, scholarship programs to help boost the percentage of Michigan residents with post-secondary degrees from 45 percent now to 60 percent by 2030.

Unlike the roads plan, the college tuition bills have some Republican sponsors including Sen. Ken Horn of Frankenmuth. He is sponsoring Senate Bill 268 to establish Michigan Reconnect to pay for tuition for students older than 25 to get associate degrees or certificates for in-demand fields.

The program would require about $40 million to launch. Money could come from existing funds from the Talent and Economic Development Department or supplemental grants.

“We know the more we spend on anything is less money we can spend on roads,” Horn told Bridge.  

“This discussion is wide open, it’s bipartisan, bicameral. We’re going to take a measured approach and see where it goes.”

Disagreement over Whitmer’s plan to raise gas taxes 45 cents per gallon to raise $2.5 billion for roads complicates budget discussions over college tuition plans, but discussions so far are amiable, Horn said.

Both plans recently won key support from business groups including the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Business Leaders of Michigan.

But Horn said Whitmer’s Opportunity Scholarship proposal to pay for two years of college tuition for students graduating high school will be a harder sell to the Legislature.

That program could cost $109 million the first year and more the second year as more students are added, said Brandy Johnson, the governor’s adviser on postsecondary education and workforce development.

The scholarship would provide high school seniors in the class of 2020 and beyond three years of 60 credit hours of tuition at a community college or a two-year, $2,500 scholarship for those attending a four-year college.

The program would have no means testing for community college scholarships but only be eligible for those with household incomes under $80,000 and students with a 3.0 grade point average for four-year schools.

Senate Majority leader Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Is money is enough?

The programs from Whitmer are modeled after ones in Tennessee, while 11 cities statewide including Detroit offer free tuition programs for their high school graduates, programs commonly known as Promise programs.

Launched in 2013 and administered by the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Detroit Promise doles out scholarships to graduates who attend six participating community colleges or 17 four-year universities. An authority created by Mayor Mike Duggan in 2016 dedicates a portion of tax dollars to permanently fund the two-year scholarships.

Research unveiled Wednesday in Detroit to education leaders suggest that free tuition alone, without extra support, may not be enough to close the skills gap.

MDRC, a nonprofit research group based in New York, partnered with the Detroit Promise to offer additional services to recipients and then studied the impact it had on about 1,200 students over two years.

The extra services included college coaching; $50 per month for expenses such as bus passes and books; summer job opportunities and a management system that tracked student participation.

Researchers found that not all students who applied for and received free tuition enrolled in college.  More important, the enrollment and retention rate was higher among students who took advantage of supplemental college coaching in addition to the free tuition.

Of 1,268 students awarded the Detroit Promise scholarship in 2016 and 2017, 829 of them enrolled in college, while 439 didn’t, according to findings released Wednesday.

The students who got college coaching also earned on average two more credits per semester and twice as many summer credits as the other students who received the Detroit Promise funds, according to the MDRC study.

The impact was greater for students taking classes full time. Six percent more students who got college coaching were enrolled full-time during their first semester, 10 percent more were enrolled during second semester compared to students who did not get college coaching, the study shows.

The governor’s free tuition plan would increase access to college, but the Detroit study shows that does not guarantee success, researchers and educators said Wednesday.

“We rarely see results that are this strong. One of the key conclusions is that frequent advising and coaching are vital,”  said Alexander Mayer, deputy director of post-secondary education for MDRC.

“We’re getting information in Detroit that all the Promise programs across the country can use.

Whitmer and state legislators need to learn from Detroit, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis focused on college attainment.

“Every access program starts with money and they all double back because if it doesn’t include a college coaching component you’re not going to get the outcomes you want,” she said. “We’ve proven that.”

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said the bipartisan sponsorship on the Reconnect bill shows that Michigan is willing to “put our money where our mouth is” to increase education levels in Michigan.

“We need young people to want to be here and want to stay here. We need to meet them with resources to get them to stay here,” he said. “This program is at the forefront.”

Coaching helps

Money is only half the battle for the 690,000 metro Detroit residents who have some college but no degree, experts said at the conference Wednesday.

Ashley Robinson, a Detroit Promise college coach at Oakland Community College, told Bridge two years ago that students often fail in community college because most have no one at home or in their lives who can help them navigate the college campus, expectations or culture.

Speaking to Bridge again Wednesday, Robinsons said she has seen students gain confidence, learn to advocate for themselves and better budget their time and money.

“The college coaching empowers them to be their own advocate,” she said.

Ronnie Foster, a Detroit Promise student at Macomb Community College, said college success is about more than money.

He wouldn’t have made it past his first semester without the help of a college coach who understood his needs and challenges, he said.

“You need to understand the culture behind the students not just where they come from but their beliefs, culture,” he said, “Then you can tap into the youth. The culture is most important.”

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middle of the mit
Fri, 04/26/2019 - 9:59pm

Are you sure your numbers are correct?

My bet? You are conflating sales tax on gasoline with fuel tax.

Would you like to know why I think that?


Why does Michigan have such high taxes on fuel but relatively low spending on roads?"While It is true that we have one of the highest gas taxes in the country," explains MDOT spokesman John Richard, "a lot of that money does not go to roads."Carl Davis, a senior analyst at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington, D.C., said Michigan is one of only four states, with Indiana, Illinois and Hawaii, that fully apply their general sales tax to fuel sales.Of the 41.4 cents in statetaxes Michigan motorists pay on a gallon of fuel, only 19 cents is a fuel tax dedicated to transportation. The other 22.4 cents is all sales tax, and under Michigan's
constitution, most of it goes to schools and local governments and very little of it canbe spent on roads.Remove that 22.4 cents from the equation and Michigan's 19-cent fuel tax ties with Arizona for ninth-lowest among the states."Including the sales tax skews Michigan tremendously," said Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

See Kevin, you and other conservatives are conflating the GAS tax with the SALES tax.

Do you complain about all the purchases that you pay sales tax on that doesn't go to the roads? NO you don't.

Why? It is a sales tax and that is where sales tax is supposed to go.

Why didn't you cons complain at all over the last 8 years while Snyder and Rs were raising your gas tax and vehicle registrations?


Thu, 04/25/2019 - 7:31am

As usual from this article the answer to our skills gap is to send more (everyone and anyone) to college. Setting as side skepticism that our government officials can make this prediction , very few of the jobs we are needing to fill need college and further there is zero evidence that those taking advantage of this bene are remotely interested in those careers in the first place. Instead we too often end up with even more educated (well at least credentialed) unskilled and yes disappointed individuals pursuing out of demand careers . As pointed out in this article we have plenty of on going programs or experiments to see how they address these objectives - if we really have any? Why can't we establish some objectives to measure against the results from already ongoing programs before making an even bigger one? Seems much of the problem of filling our skills gap has its cause something that begins way before our youth ever step into college.

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 7:33am

How is the governor going to pay for all of this? College has become a scam as we graduate thousands of student and the world's problems seem to be getting worse.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 8:45am

Nobody successfully navigates life without the help of other people. The article is absolutely correct in pointing out how essential it is to have SOMEONE who can serve as a young person's 'coach' during college. For those of us with a multi-generational tradition of college (and a middle class family income) that is probably a parent or two. For those without those things, they either find a congenial knowledgeable mentor or blindly try to find their ways.
Paying for young people's college (and their essential support) is not a COST--it is an INVESTMENT by the public in the kids who will help support us when we can no longer support ourselves.

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 10:58am

I do agree with you that college and I would add advanced training [such as in certification programs] are an investment in people and our future. My concern/hesitation is because you make no mention of what the return on such an investment or what are the responsibility of those spending the investment, you don’t care about those who money you want you, like the Governor simply want more money to throw at things that makes you feel good.
I want to put my investment in subjects and programs that prepare students to earn a return that justifies that investment. I want students to be accountable for earning a degree or certification. What you call an investment I want to include student responsibility and accountability. At a form employer, they would pay for books and tuition if the courses fit their needs and they would only pay after you had passed the course with a minimum grade. Why don’t you include such an approach in you grab for more of other people’s money?
In my limited college years, the most common cause of dropouts or failures was the lack of students applying themselves [not studying] and probably to your surprise a significant contributor was excessive socializing [partying], how is that the investment you claim for our money?
You can talk on the ethereal plane, when will you and the Governor get real and care about the actual value of our ‘investment’ in higher education, when will you begin to focus on real return [why not start small proving investments to those earning STEM degrees, earning journeyman certifications], when will you begin to include student responsibility/accountability for their receiving the ‘investment?
When do you start including value received with the request for investment?

middle of the mit
Sat, 04/27/2019 - 12:26am

Duane:"At a form employer, they would pay for books and tuition if the courses fit their needs and they would only pay after you had passed the course with a minimum grade. Why don’t you include such an approach in you grab for more of other people’s money?"

Employers used to do this with pay before collages. It was called apprenticeship. They used to pay people to learn the skills needed in their place of employment

Now, we have to give employers tax breaks against how much our communities are allowed to pay for schools and local functions so these job "creators" can come to our towns and "create" jobs and our citizens or should I say employees are required to pay for their own training?

Hey! You have to now check yourself out at your local Fall-Mart, don't ya?

Did your prices go down for doing their work for you? OR , have you found that prices have stayed the same, and your amount of product you received in return went down?

Is that inflation?

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 12:21am

The point of the employer experience was a method of student accountability, and the practice of paying for college courses was well established for the time you are talking about.
As for price increases, have you check on the value provided improving; consider computers they are faster, have more capacity and the prices are half what they were originally, phone gotten more expensive but now they are give you services that weren't even available on a computer less than a generation ago, fresh food is organic, better quality, and is available year round, even clothes have improved significantly, and cars last a quarter of a million miles of driving without any major servicing. Prices do rise but when what you are buying is far superior then what was available at any price are you sure it is inflation and not just paying for the improvements?

Amy B
Thu, 04/25/2019 - 8:59am

I support making four-year and community college more affordable and accessible for all students but I'm skeptical that a two year, $2,500 scholarship for four-year university students is a useful investment. Full-time tuition and housing costs at MSU and UM are now about $25,000 per year/$100,000 for four years. $2,500 is literally a drop in the bucket for these students and families. A better way would be for the state to restore funding levels for state universities back to pre-recession levels and demand equivalent tuition reductions.

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 1:11pm

You can offer free everything, but unless you figure out how to stop chronic absenteeism in school systems that service mainly the disadvantaged as was reported in today’s Free Press, you will do noting to lessen the skills gap.

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 5:43pm

You can continue to give away everything...but if there are no jobs to go to once they are holding a degree ...definition of insanity or politics ! Instead, give incentives to the businesses that need employees to educate them with their own training staff’s. That may create even more jobs. More jobs equals more tax revenues without increasing the taxes...

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 1:08am

Too bad the editor that wrote the headline for the article didn't read the article to learn it was all about college and nothing about the skills needs.
It takes skills training to be a successful welder, electrician, pipefitter, machinist, etc. There are college course that may enhance their knowledge, but replace the skills education.

Fri, 04/26/2019 - 3:27pm

High taxes, High gas, Highest Auto Insurance in the US.
Now what is going to happen for Michigan.
Seems like Michigan is getting worse all the time.

John Tiemstra
Sat, 04/27/2019 - 12:25pm

For years, the attitude in Michigan has been that we don't need college, we need skilled trades. The result is that we lag the rest of the country in college attendance and achievement, and we also lag in income. Heavy manufacturing and construction are not the future. Health care, information technology, communications, research--these are the future. We need more college-educated people in the state if we are going to match the economic performance of the high-income states.

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 2:17am

The first step the Governor should take is working on the corruption and the overwhelming spending by our State Colleges and Universities. (Just in the last few weeks MSU administration and family members kicked the band and cheer team members off the basketball teams plane so they could get a free right to the final four. That forced the band and cheer members to take a bus ride of many hours and arrive worn out and tired.) These uncaring fat cats at these institutions are corrupt and waste millions of taxpayer dollars. I was a civil servant who was paid a very low wage even though I held multiple degrees. But I chose government work to be a servant. Not to get rich.
But our State Colleges and Universities pay outlandish salaries to administrators and professors.
Madam Governor, reduce those costs and stop corrupt practices in these institutions to help repair our roads and fund the attendance at Community Colleges or trade schools for those who's family income is under 100,000 per year.
Don't tax the life out of seniors and the poor for driving older cars or going to Drs or shooping..

Sun, 04/28/2019 - 9:09am

Economics 101, supply and demand - college costs are largely driven by demand. Increase demand further increase costs. Let the market drive training and schooling not the tax payers.

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 12:26am

Are you sure it isn't more money [easy loans, latest I have heard is 1.5 trillion] trying to get into the same old schools. Could it be the schools are simply charging what the market will bear rather then what the actual cost is?