In a state that has struggled to increase the number of people with college degrees, the gap between tuition costs at Michigan’s 28 community colleges is widening.
At just over $3,000 for a year of classes, Oakland Community College is the least expensive in the state, and it sits in one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Nearly one of every two adults in Oakland County has a college degree, far higher than the national average of about 31 percent.
Costs are twice as high an hour away at Jackson College west of Ann Arbor, where tuition is nearly $6,200 for 30 credits. Just over 1 in 5 adults has a college degree in Jackson County.
Bridge Magazine is examining the changing costs of community college as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposes providing high school graduates at least two years of free community college – or two years of tuition assistance at four-year schools.
Her plan has bipartisan support and is under consideration in the Legislature, with a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in the appropriations committee. The proposal would cost $109 million in the first year and be offered to all graduating high school seniors.
Advocates point out that tuition and fees at all Michigan community colleges are still far cheaper than all of the state’s 15 four-year universities: Jackson’s in-district rate, for instance, is still $3,500 less than tuition at the least expensive four-year school, Saginaw Valley State and $10,000 less than the most expensive, Michigan Tech.
For low-income students, federal Pell Grants can cover the entire cost of community colleges, but not everyone is eligible for assistance.
“Money is still a barrier,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, which advocates for increasing college opportunities.
Tuition costs are rising unevenly, Bridge’s analysis shows: With state higher education appropriations for community colleges rising just under 4 percent since 2017-18 to $414.7 million, the average tuition rose nearly 8 percent to roughly $4,350.
But the least expensive schools saw increases below 5 percent and Jackson, the highest, increased just over 10 percent – expanding the gap between the lowest and highest costs.
Short of restructuring how Michigan governs and funds higher education, Fewins-Bliss argued the state needs to vastly increase the amount it spends on scholarships and grants.
In the 2017-18 school year, the state spent roughly $123 million on student aid, some for private schools, others spread across the state. It included $55 million for over 22,000 students whose families qualified for Medicaid.
But Fewins-Bliss said that total amount puts Michigan among the lowest in the country. According to the National Science Board, state aid averages $342 a student in Michigan – a third of the national average of $981 per student. The state is ranked 39th in state-based aid.
“It’s embarrassing,” he said. “We need to increase state-based financial aid by $400 million.”
That’s unlikely. In fact, Whitmer recently vetoed $38 million in scholarship aid that went to students at private schools as part of her line-item veto and shifts of nearly $1 billion from a GOP-passed budget.
Local funding, local decisions
Unlike the state’s public universities, which rely largely on student tuition and fees and state aid, community colleges have a third major funding source – local property taxes.
And the disparities exist because voters have approved different millage rates and they are applied against tax bases large (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne) and small (northern Michigan college districts).
Both Jackson and Oakland, for instance, have property tax rates for their community colleges that are among the lowest in the state. But Oakland’s huge tax base generates nearly $7,400 per full-year student. Jackson’s tax base generates just under $1,600 a student.
State aid and tuition make up the difference: Jackson College, for instance, receives nearly $4,000 in state aid per student compared to just under $2,000 a student at Oakland.
More than 25 years ago, a similar system existed for K-12 education, with tax rates and local revenue varying widely. That ended in 1994 with the passage of Proposal A, which set a flat property tax statewide and funded schools based on enrollment.
Michael Hansen, executive director of the Michigan Community Colleges Association, said no one is clamoring for a statewide tax for community colleges. There are 28 colleges in 57 counties; residents in the 26 counties without a college would likely be unwilling to pay, Hansen said.
Hansen acknowledged the differences between schools but said the rates are set locally and reflect local priorities regarding taxes and who pays. Jackson has the lowest millage rate – 1.14 mills – compared to 17 schools that are double and triple that amount.
“I think the culture of the state is so locally oriented,” Hansen said.
In addition to tuition, other costs are impediments to continuing education such as transportation and child-care, he said.
Fewins-Bliss said one of the bigger problems colleges face is in Lansing. Because there isn’t a central authority, colleges are left to fend for themselves – to lean on local legislative leaders for additional help.
Northern Michigan schools – in the western Upper Peninsula, Alpena and Escanaba – have received the biggest state aid allotments, on a per-student basis. But they also have the smallest local tax bases.
“They’re all on their own to figure this out and advocate for their own appropriation,” he said.
Editor’s note: The chart accompanying this story was updated Dec. 12, 2019, to correct the percentage of funding sources received by community colleges.