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Bridge Michigan
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More options for cheaper college if Michigan students fill out free form

college students
Many Michigan high school seniors are eligible for the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship to attend either a private training program, community college, a private four-year college or a public four-year university. Michigan adults 25 and older may also be able to attend their local community college tuition free as part of Michigan Reconnect. (Spiroview Inc / Shutterstock.com)
  • It’s estimated that about 76 percent of Michigan students coming to a public 4-year university qualify for a new state scholarship 
  • But many high school students still haven’t filled out a key form that allows them to see how much they can save 
  • College leaders hope the state’s new scholarship program will increase enrollment and degree rates

A new college scholarship program and changes to a free community college tuition adult program are designed to make college more affordable for Michigan residents. 

The problem, though, is that fewer potential Michigan college students are filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form that helps determine if they qualify for reduced or free college.

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As of Tuesday, just 25.2 percent of Michigan high school seniors had completed the FAFSA form, compared to 26.2 percent at the same time last year, according to the Michigan College Access Network’s FAFSA tracker. Nationwide, 29.6 percent of high school seniors had completed the FAFSA as of December 23, according to the Form Your Future FAFSA Tracker

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There is still time to fill out the form, and those rates are expected to rise. The state deadline is May 1 while individual schools may set their own FAFSA deadlines. In 2020-21, just over half of U.S. high school seniors completed the form. 

FAFSA completion correlates with higher college-going rates. At least five states — Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana and Texas — now require high school seniors to complete the free form, with a half dozen other states moving in that direction. 

Michigan college presidents, college access experts and others in higher education say taking this step, and asking questions about the true cost of a college education, will lead more students to see they can afford college, which in turn generally leads to higher paying jobs for those who finish. 

Olivet College President Steven Corey told Bridge Michigan that students and families are used to an “absolutely confusing model” where they see a high list price for college and then later calculate a much lower net cost for college once aid is offered. He hopes the state’s new Michigan Achievement Scholarship will be “a big sea change.” 

The new state scholarship is available to high school graduates beginning in 2023 and offers up to $5,500 a year to attend a college or university in Michigan. Students qualify if their expected family contribution is $25,000 or less. 

Grand Valley State University will begin to send out financial aid offers to people in mid-January. 

“We also want to give families a good indication of what they would pay the first time they get an award letter,” Michelle Rhodes, associate vice president for financial aid at Grand Valley State University, told Bridge. 

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Many college leaders told Bridge they understand the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form can be complicated. Michelle Rhodes, associate vice president for financial aid at Grand Valley State University, encourages students and parents to call a university financial aid office when they have questions. “We want to help,” she said. (Courtesy photo)

She recommends students fill out the FAFSA and to reach out to schools’ financial aid offices when they have questions. 

But across the state, many high school seniors have not completed the first step to be qualified for financial aid. That only exacerbates challenges facing Michigan students. 

Prior to the passage of the new state scholarship, Michigan ranked in the bottom nationally for college affordability. A few years ago, the Michigan League For Public Policy ranked Michigan last out of 48 states for public student aid per student based on 2018 data

But in recent years, the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has led efforts to lower costs for a two- or four-year college or certificate program. 

A 2021 report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association shows the state significantly expanded its financial aid investments in 2-year schools because of the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners programs. 

Higher education leaders told Bridge they hope the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship will increase the number of people who fill out the FAFSA and realize college is within reach. They also hope it will bolster enrollment after the state and the nation suffered college enrollment losses throughout the pandemic. 

Whitmer has said she wants the state 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.

And other groups are hearing a similar message from the business community. 

“The employers are telling us there is value in a college degree. Lots of folks need training after high school,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a group that works to increase college access for all students, particularly among low-income students, students of color and first-generation students.

Michigan students who graduate from high school or earn a high school equivalency starting in 2023 do not have to fill out a separate application to apply for the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship. They must have an expected family contribution to college expenses of $25,000 or less a year, as determined by the FAFSA. 

Students receiving the scholarship must enroll within 15 months of high school graduation or earning a high school equivalency certificate and enroll full time. 

Eligible students can receive up to:

  • $5,500 per year to attend a public Michigan university
  • $4,000 per year to attend a private nonprofit college in Michigan
  • $2,750 per year to attend a community college or tribal college in Michigan 
  • $2,000 per year to attend an eligible training provider in Michigan

Colby Cesaro, vice president at the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities Association, estimates that about 94 percent of community college students would be eligible for a Michigan Achievement Scholarship. About 76 percent of public university students and 79 percent of private university students would be eligible.

Those estimates are based on college enrollment numbers from 2020 Michigan high school graduates and information about current college students’ expected family contributions from the Michigan Department of Treasury. 

At Eastern Michigan University, Vice President and Chief Enrollment Officer Kevin Kucera estimates that about 70 percent of Michigan residents who have filled out their FAFSA and applied to EMU will be eligible for the state scholarship. 

Alma College President Jeff Abernathy said he anticipates that about 75 percent of the incoming class to his school an hour north of Lansing will qualify for the state scholarship. That’s about 300 students. 

At Olivet, President Corey said the state-funded scholarship has made it possible for the school to take other steps to improve affordability. 

The school recently announced the Advantage Scholarship: if a student is eligible for a federal Pell Grant and qualifies for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, they can attend Olivet tuition-free. If they qualify for the state scholarship and their families adjusted gross income is $100,000 or less, they will pay no more than $5,000 in tuition for this upcoming school year. 

“We’re telling you, ‘We don’t have to do the math, it’s zero tuition,’” Corey said of applicants who meet the Pell and state qualifications. 

Still, higher education experts say they are still working to get the word out about the broad availability of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship.

Onjila Odeneal
Onjila Odeneal is the senior director of policy and advocacy for The Institute for College Access & Success Michigan. She said a lot of people still do not know about the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship. (Courtesy photo)

“From a community standpoint, people don’t really know what it is and for those people who had heard about it, it’s like “I heard it from the grapevine,” said Onjila Odeneal, senior director of policy and advocacy for The Institute for College Access & Success Michigan. 

The Michigan Reconnect program offers free tuition to community college for adults 25 and older who graduated from high school or have a high school equivalency certificate. 

Fewins-Bliss, of the college access group, said the Reconnect and Achievement programs help students with challenging financial circumstances see more clearly there is a path to pay for college. Telling someone to just apply for scholarships and financial aid can feel “so nebulous,” especially for first-generation or low-income students whose families have never been through what can be a complicated process.

“So someone being like ‘Look, this could be your thing,’ it's just so much easier for them to understand. It makes it feel like college is for them.”

In December, Whitmer signed bills that amended the Reconnect program.

Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, told Bridge one change includes the way part-time enrollment is defined. Previously, students had to take at least six credits for two out of three semesters in a year. Now, students are given more freedom to spread their classes and maintain program eligibility as long as they earned 12 credits an academic year. Johnson said this can help provide flexibility for students who might be able to better balance work or child care obligations. 

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She said the changes also improve accountability for community colleges to improve student completion rates. And there are incentives for community colleges to provide college credit for a student’s prior learning experiences, such as military experience, Advanced Placement coursework and more. A 2020 study analyzed 72 schools across the country and found that students who received such credits were 17 percent more likely to get a degree, and in nine to 14 months less time. 

College access advocates had pushed for the age of eligibility for community college tuition breaks to be lowered from 25 to 21 but that did not happen. The advocates told Bridge they still hope the state will lower the age requirement.

Johnson’s advice to anyone even considering a college degree? Think about what you want to do with a career and find programs that align with those goals. Even if a person doesn’t know what they want to do, Johnson encourages people to fill out the FAFSA. 

“Don't be intimidated by this form. Just get it in and then it unlocks all the options.”

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