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Michigan free college tuition programs spread across the state

Oakland University
There are now more than 50 community colleges and four-year colleges and universities that offer tuition-free programs for some group of students. (Bridge file photo)

Tuition-free programs are spreading across Michigan’s four-year college campuses, a movement that appears to have been sparked by two new and wildly popular free community college programs initiated recently by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Between the community college programs and tuition-free offers for some students at a growing number of colleges and universities, millions of Michigan residents can now attend college for free or at deeply discounted rates.

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Saginaw Valley State University will unveil a free-tuition program in the coming weeks. Central Michigan University’s program is so new it’s not yet on their website. And Ferris State joined the free tuition club two weeks ago.

There are at least 11 four-year colleges and universities with tuition-free programs for designated groups of students. Include recently announced state programs offering free community college to most Michigan adults, and colleges that accept students who qualify for a special scholarship for Detroit students, and that number swells to at least 23 four-year universities and colleges and 31 community colleges.

Some of the offers are limited to students who come from low-income families or live in specific communities. And many students could have gotten tuition for free or a deep discount before the programs were announced. Still, the programs are likely to lure more students to campuses, and help the state boost degree attainment as a means to increase earnings and supercharge the state’s economy.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made community college tuition-free for most Michigan residents ages 25 and older in January, just months after she did the same thing for pandemic frontline workers.

Those programs guarantee that tuition and mandatory fees at community colleges and some job training centers will be covered at no expense to the more than 4 million Michigan residents who qualify. About 120,000 people applied for the Futures for Frontliners program, and 46,000 have applied in the first three weeks of Michigan Reconnect.

Those two programs don’t extend benefits to students enrolling at four-year institutions, but their ripple effect is helping drive an explosion in tuition-free programs at the state’s public universities.

Freshmen enrollment was down an average of 7 percent at the state’s 15 public universities last fall, much of it likely tied to remote learning, closed dorms and safety concerns relating to the coronavirus. 

State programs now offering community college classes tuition-free to millions could drive four-year college and university freshman enrollment down further in the fall of 2021, said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of Michigan College Access Network, a group that works to increase college enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.

In an economy strained by the pandemic, students might be more likely to opt for a now-far-cheaper, two-year associate’s degree, or spend their first two years at community college then transfer for their last two years at a university. Either option would likely mean less revenue for four-year universities.  

Those enrollment concerns are helping drive a flurry of new free-tuition programs at public universities, as well as several programs that offer discounts to students who first go to community college through Michigan Reconnect or Futures for Frontliners.

“It feels like it’s in response to the enrollment crisis we’re facing in the near future,” Fewins-Bliss said.

“Peer pressure is a great motivator.”

Three public universities have launched or are in the process of launching tuition-free programs in the past few weeks – Ferris State, Central Michigan and Saginaw Valley, with the schools emphasizing the desire to help low-income students attend college.

“The pandemic has had a significant economic impact on many segments of our population,” Kristen Salomonson, dean of enrollment services at Ferris State, told Bridge Michigan in an email. “Opportunity shouldn’t be based on how much money you have. It also shouldn’t be bought with a mountain of debt.”

“Places like SVSU are where social mobility happens,” Saginaw Valley spokesperson J.J. Boehm wrote Bridge. “We understand we have a critical role to play in Michigan’s economic recovery.”

Statewide, the programs vary widely in who qualifies for free tuition. At Ferris, students must come from families with household incomes that qualify them on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as being able to contribute zero to college bills. One example: a student from a family with a household income less than $24,000 and which received government assistance of some kind in the filing year would have an expected family contribution of zero.

At the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, student household income can be as high as $65,000 to qualify for free tuition.

At Wayne State University, those who live in and attended high schools in Detroit get tuition paid; at Grand Valley State University, low-income students from six counties qualify for free tuition.

Schools can afford those offers because the majority of the tuition for low-income students was already paid for, through federal Pell grants.

Pell grants cover up to $6,195 a year for students in families with adjusted gross incomes of $26,000 or less. Students earning up to $60,000 qualify for smaller Pell grants.

University of Michigan-Dearborn, for example doesn’t have a financial aid program billed as tuition-free, but 90 percent of students who are eligible for federal Pell grants received enough aid to cover tuition, according to university spokesperson Beth Marmarelli. The same is true at Michigan Tech in Houghton. Michigan Tech doesn’t have a designated “free-tuition” program, but some students have tuition covered through merit or financial need scholarships, said spokesperson Stephanie Sidortsova.

Some schools haven’t had to add money to their financial aid budgets for the tuition-free programs. What the programs do, though, is provide an easy-to-understand description of financial aid for students and families who may otherwise think college is unaffordable, said Dan Hurley, executive director of the Michigan Association of State Universities, which advocates for the state’s 15 public universities.

“These are often a reorganization of existing financial aid dollars,” Hurley said. “Simplicity in messaging and transparency is very important.”

Shane Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Oakland University in Oakland County, agreed that messaging is key to getting more people to consider college.

 “A lot of these (programs) are noting that there are students from families who may not think the benefits of a college education outweigh the cost,” Lewis said. “The sticker price sometimes shocks families.”

What families often don’t realize is that the majority of students don’t pay the sticker price listed on college websites even without the tuition-free offers. For example, the sticker price at Michigan State University for a full-time student, including tuition, fees, room and board, was almost $30,000 in the 2019-20 school year; students from families with household incomes under $30,000 actually paid about $7,700.

Some sticker shock might still remain even for those who qualify for the burgeoning tuition-free programs: students are still responsible for other costs, such as housing (if they need it), food and books, though some may qualify for additional financial aid that covers all or some of those expenses, too.

Even with those limitations, Fewins-Bliss said the tuition-free offers are “long overdue.”

Michigan is below the national average in the percentage of adults with college degrees, which hobbles the state’s attempts to attract business and suppresses incomes.

More education typically means higher salaries. Nationally, high school grads earned, on average, $38,792 in 2019, compared to $46,124 for those with an associate’s degree and $64,896 for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Whitmer set a goal of having 60 percent of adults with a degree or high-skill certificate by 2020. Currently, the figure stands at 49 percent. The national average is 51 percent.

To reach that goal, more low-income and first-generation students need to enroll in college. Marketing college as “free,” even if it was already no or low cost, is a way to make families take a second look at higher education, said Hurley.

The massive response to Whitmer’s two tuition-free community college programs demonstrates the pent-up demand for affordable college, Hurley said. “

“We’re at an inflection point where the public’s attention has been captured,” Hurley said. “The universities are trying to take advantage of that.”

It’s already worked at Oakland University, located in Rochester. Oakland has had a tuition-free program for low-income students since 2009. Since then, the percent of students attending who qualify for low-income Pell grants has increased from 20 percent to 32 percent.

“These programs allow families to see that college is affordable,” said Oakland’s Lewis.

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