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Michigan GOP, Whitmer push college tuition aid plans. How their plans differ.

Lawmakers are considering a new scholarship program and expanding access to the state’s free community college program. (Shutterstock)

As Michigan faces lagging college enrollment and a budget surplus, state leaders this year are proposing to spend more to make higher education more affordable.

The big picture: Michigan is behind other states when it comes to the rate of people earning bachelor degrees or higher. Nationally, 33.1 percent of adults have a bachelor degree or higher, compared to 30 percent in Michigan, according to 2019 census data.


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to increase the rate of working adults with a skills certificate, associate degree, bachelor degree or higher from 49 percent to 60 percent by 2030.


At the same time, Michigan high school students have spent the last two years in ever-changing classrooms that have adapted to COVID-19. Some students have decided against college altogether.

“As we see the debate and discussion at the federal level about student loan debt, I think access to college and affordability becomes a hot-button issue, hopefully moving into the elections, because we know that this is a critical piece for Michigan families and the country’s families In order for them to be successful not just now, but for their life,” Michigan College Access Network executive director Ryan Fewins-Bliss told Bridge Michigan on Monday. 

Earlier this year, Michigan had a budget surplus approaching $6 billion, prompting an unprecedented splurge of proposals ranging from $2 billion in tax cuts by Republicans and a proposed 11 percent increase in the higher education operations budget to $2.8 billion.

Increasing affordability

The cost of college varies depending on school and family finances. Students often do not pay the sticker price that is listed or a school’s website. 

Tuitions and fees have gone up over 200 percent at several state universities — as state aid has decreased — from 2001-2002 to 2021-2022, according to data reported to the state’s Higher Education Institutional Data Inventory. 

The increases range from a 172 percent jump at Michigan State from $5,912 a year to $16,058 per year for undergraduates over that time to 226 percent increases at Wayne State ($4,679 to $15,261) and Oakland University ($4,638 to $15,135).

In Michigan, average students now leave college with about $36,000 in loans. Attorney General Dana Nessel, along with other state attorney generals, urged President Joe Biden to forgive student loan debt in a letter sent earlier this month, MLive reported

The Democratic governor and Republican leaders of the House and Senate have different proposals when it comes to student aid. 

Here’s a look:

Proposal: Michigan Achievement Scholarship

The state Senate passed its budget proposal Tuesday, which includes $361 million to create the Michigan Achievement Scholarship program until at least 2026.

It would provide up to $6,000 a year to students attending a public or private Michigan university and up to $3,000 a year for students attending a Michigan community or tribal college or a qualified private training institution.

The program would allow residents who graduated from high school in 2022 or later to be eligible for funding depending on their family’s finances. 

Students must enroll in college or university full-time and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. They would be eligible if their expected family contribution is $25,000 a year or less. The program would be a last-dollar grant meaning students would be awarded only after all other financial aid resources (such as Pell Grants) are applied.

About 43 percent of Michigan students have filled out a FAFSA form as of April 22, slightly below the nationwide rate of 46.4 percent, according to the National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA tracker. 

Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Niles, proposed the plan and said 62 percent of students who benefit would already qualify for some federal aid, while 38 percent of students would receive funds from this program while not qualifying for federal aid. 

That analysis is based on a 2016 report that analyzed national trends in expected family contributions.

Among other benefits, the program could increase college enrollment, decrease student debt and enhance the labor force, LaSata said.

Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley told Bridge the program would be an “instantaneous game changer for college affordability and talent production” for Michigan. He said when applicants don’t receive enough aid, they often “don’t end up enrolling”.

Hurley said the program would also send a message to employers and potential employers that Michigan is serious about improving education. 

Michigan Competitive Scholarship

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Whitmer, a Democrat, want to increase the amount a student can receive from the Michigan Competitive Scholarship, which is awarded based on SAT scores, high school graduation and filling out the FAFSA.  

The Legislature wants to bump it to $1,500 per year from $1,000, while Whitmer seeks $1,200.

The plans do not include the allocation of additional money into the programs.

Michigan Tuition Grant

The state operates a program that provides money to students who demonstrate financial need and are attending a private college. 

Lawmakers want to increase that to $3,000 per year per student from $2,800, while Whitmer is proposing a raise to $2,900 a year. 

Increasing Access

Michigan Reconnect

The House approved its budget proposals for higher education and community colleges Thursday including an expansion to the Michigan Reconnect program. The program currently enables Michigan residents who are 25 and older to attend an in-district community college tuition-free to earn a certificate or associate degree. 

The House’s proposal would use $148.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds so that students as young as 21 can participate.

There are about 8,300 students enrolled in community college through the program this semester, according to data from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. In the fall, there were 11,065 students enrolled at a community college using the Reconnect program. 

It is unclear how many of those students were retained from one semester to the next.

Using federal COVID-19 funds to help students catch up 

The House is proposing using $10 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help incoming community college students prepare for the 2022-2023 school year. 

The program could help students who have experienced significant changes to their high school education over the last two years from COVID-19

Michigan Community College Association President Brandy Johnson, whose group would administer the program, told Bridge it would help students whose learning was “interrupted pretty massively.” 

This type of summer programming was suggested by the Student Recovery Advisory Council, which Whitmer created, in part to help students complete degrees on time. The group was composed of education leaders, union officials and healthcare professionals and one K-12 student. 


Some students entering community college are required to take remedial courses before they can take college-level course work. At Grand Rapids Community College, the university offers a free three-week program to help students strengthen their academic skills. If they retake their placement exam and score higher, they can save time and money by not having to take remedial courses. 

The college also offered a separate program last summer in which high school graduates could come for a month to boost their reading, writing and math skills. The program was free and provided students with a $500 stipend to help offset earnings or other expenses. The school plans to run the program again. 

It’s important “to get students as fast as we can in courses that are truly progressing them toward their degree,” Bill Pink, president of the community college, told Bridge.

Nearly 80 percent of the 176 participating students improved math placement scores, the school said.

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