Opinion | Federal higher ed relief urgently needed for Michigan students

During recessions, Michiganders typically return to school to acquire new skills in hopes of securing new jobs and, in turn, financial security. During the Great Recession, adult workers fueled a 2.5 percent increase in college enrollment. But the current recession is different.

Today, our state’s colleges are struggling to serve as a reliable rung on the ladder to increased socioeconomic mobility. Enrollment is down nationally at nearly every level of postsecondary education with the biggest drops in first-time undergraduates and community colleges, which more often enroll students living with low incomes and returning adult students. Undergraduate enrollment at Michigan institutions is down 9.7 percent this year compared to 2019.

Because enrollment translates to resources, the pandemic’s onset is disrupting higher education institution’s ability to serve students and exacerbating the ongoing financial strain caused by decades of state budget cuts.

Caroline Smith is the deputy director of the Kresge Foundation’s Education program. Catherine Brown is the senior adviser for Michigan for The Institute for College Access and Success.

Federal support made possible a significant expansion in financial aid and support for public colleges this year, which is helping students stay connected to their studies. But neither Michigan nor any other state can avoid devastating cuts to its higher education budget without more help from the federal government.

A second federal relief bill should put students front and center by doubling the Pell Grant, extending and expanding the current pause on student loan payments and debt collection among borrowers and boosting support for public colleges. 

Here’s why. When the Great Recession hit Michigan, our state’s colleges and universities took one of the biggest budget cuts – twice as large as that of K-12 schools. Today, the state still spends 10.7 percent less on higher education in inflation-adjusted dollars than it did in 2011.

Unfortunately, cuts to higher education are all too familiar in Michigan. For decades, our students and families have shouldered the burden of these cuts in the form of tuition increases and higher student loan debt. Forty years ago, students paid for 30 percent of college tuition and the state covered 70 percent with financial aid and public support for colleges. Today, the reverse is true and the lowest income students must commit more than two-thirds of their income to cover the cost of attending a four-year public college. Nearly 60 percent of our college graduates emerge with debt, an average of more than $30,000.

And it’s students living with low incomes and students of color who enroll at lower rates and are more likely to end up with unsustainable levels of debt when costs rise. This, in turn, undermines the ability of higher education to serve as a vehicle for upward social and economic mobility.

Michigan’s budget, enacted in late September, leveraged federal funding to stave off trouble for our students and colleges. This legislation protected state spending on public institutions and launched the Michigan Reconnect program to expand need-based financial aid to help working adults go back to school. These investments built on the Futures for Frontliners program, which provides a tuition-free pathway for essential workers to gain new skills and earn a community college credential. The program has already garnered more than 75,000 applications and should begin to chip away at enrollment declines.

These investments – in addition to $170 million in direct payments to Michigan higher institutions and students and frozen student loan payments – were made possible by the CARES Act.  Nevertheless, those federal funds are about to run out, and with them, a backbone of economic support for the state of Michigan.

Prior to the pandemic, college enrollment was increasing among students living with low incomes. But that progress is now at risk. And since 86 percent of Michigan’s current and future most in-demand jobs require a postsecondary degree, decreasing enrollment will hamper efforts to strengthen the pipeline of skilled workers in our state.  This affects the long-term prosperity of all Michiganders.

To be clear, federal relief alone will not spare students from pandemic-related disruption. Many are facing economic losses or uncertainty, the loss of reliable childcare and schooling and other complications that lead them to make the hard choice to forgo college this year. But Michiganders will be much worse off if the U.S. Congress does not act quickly to provide greater support.

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J Hendricks
Mon, 11/02/2020 - 7:43pm

“Undergraduate enrollment is down 9.7% from 2019”. I think the first step here is for universities to cut their expenses by the same amount. Maybe even look at a housecleaning of all the non-teaching and administrative positions that have bloated college payrolls over the past 30-40 years. I’ve often wondered what education would cost if there were no government loan programs that expand as college costs increase, with the obvious result of burdensome debt dropped on the college grads Might be a real “come to Jesus” moment on costs if the only tuition money came from students and parents. Schools would get very efficient or die - as they should.