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New carpets, more supports: How Michigan colleges would spend Whitmer plan

college students
Higher education leaders say Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget proposals will allow them to think creatively about how best to support students. (Shutterstock)

Montcalm Community College would bolster skilled trades training to meet local housing demand. Grand Rapids Community College could fund a program to prepare new students for college life. And Oakland University would like a boost in state funding on par with other universities.  

Leaders at these and other schools praised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed budget increases for higher education, saying the funds — if approved — will help tackle much needed building needs, make college more affordable and help schools think more creatively about how they can serve local communities.

 

On the Montcalm campus in Sidney, northeast of Greenville, President Stacy Young’s funding wish list is long, including upgrading furniture. 

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“Furniture may not seem like a big deal,” Young told Bridge Michigan. “But when you have students who hang out here for the whole day — because they live 30 minutes down the road — that's a really important thing. Because they're going to be using that to study and meet with their friends and their groups and their classes.”

After years of incremental increases, Whitmer last week pitched a 5-percent bump in annual funding for the state’s universities and community colleges in the next fiscal year, along with a one-time 5 percent increase on operating costs. 

If agreed to by the legislature, the state’s public universities would get $76.3 million in one-time funding next year and $76.3 million more in ongoing funding. Community colleges would receive $16.2 million in one-time funding and $16.2 million more in ongoing funding.

There is also the possibility of additional infrastructure funds: Whitmer proposed $200 million “for improvements and deferred maintenance” on buildings, technology and equipment, with most of the funds going to universities, as part of a supplemental increase request for the current fiscal year.

Roughly 380,000 students attend Michigan’s public community colleges and universities, with the bulk (more than 260,000) attending the four-year schools, according to data from the National Clearing House.

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Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink said he is thinking about college affordability and student success. A bump in base funding means he can think more strategically about what programs to offer, including programs currently reliant on grant funding.

For example, GRCC saw success with a summer bridge program that targeted 2021 and 2020 high school graduates who finished high school through virtual learning during the pandemic. The goal is to help these students smoothly acclimate to college life and provide career services in a boot camp format. Pink said more state dollars would stabilize funding so the program wouldn’t have to depend on future grants. 

“That's always a big question when it comes to grants: What’s the sustainability? And more money…to the base, helps with sustainability,” he said. 

Alpena Community College President Don MacMaster said the campus’ oldest building was constructed in 1957 and the newest is 2015, and they are all “essential.” 

“So do we need to put up a new building? The demographics of Northeast Michigan would say, probably not,” he said. 

“But we certainly need to maintain and upgrade both the HVAC, the roof, the wiring, all of that in the existing structures, and then in some cases, renovate them for 21st-century learning. And these are not small bills. They're large bills. They're not as large as tearing everything down and building new, which would be almost prohibitively expensive.”

At Montcalm Community College, Young has several goals. The local community is struggling with not enough housing. But there aren’t enough skilled workers to help build new homes. She said the school wants to help more people become electricians, construction workers and HVAC specialists. Additional state funding would help the school hire people to build that curriculum, expand and run the program. 

“When you have a plumber come into your house these days, usually, everybody that I've seen lately, they're talking about retirement,” Young said. “So we need to replace those workers with people who want to do those jobs. Well, you need to train them first.”

She also wants to expand MCC Express, a program that connects students with a staff “conductor,” who students can call anytime with questions about college. It’s the kind of ongoing support community college leaders say will reduce the number of students who drop out without a degree. According to Young, the Express program boasts a 94 percent retention rate for students who enrolled this past fall through the Whitmer administration’s Michigan Reconnect free-tuition program.

Young said Montcalm’s school buildings are old but she is trying to stretch every dollar. The school recently replaced carpeting that was older than many of its students. 

In Southwest Michigan, Lake Michigan College President Trevor Kubatzke said added funds will help provide wraparound services for the school’s growing cadre of Michigan Reconnect students. Under the program, the state pays tuition for adults over age 25 to get an associates degree or certification. In fall 2021, the two-year college, in Benton Township, had 151 Reconnect students. Now, there are 302.

Kubatzke said he already scaled up from having one counselor for Reconnect students to now having two counselors and three interns. 

Michigan’s four-year universities are also hungry for more money. To receive added  funding under the governor’s plan, universities must limit tuition and fee raises to 5 percent or $722, whichever is greater, and meet certain requirements about transfer policies.

Under Whitmer’s proposal, each of the state’s 15 four-year public universities would eventually receive state per-student funding of at least $4,500. Currently, there are five universities below that level: Grand Valley, Oakland, Saginaw Valley and the University of Michigan campuses in Dearborn and Flint.

If Whitmer’s plan is approved, per-pupil state funding at those schools would exceed $3,500 in the first year and increase to $4,500 by year four.

Oakland University president Ora Hirsch Pescovitz praised Whitmer’s proposal.

Two years ago, Oakland announced a “Strive for 45” campaign to urge state lawmakers to raise minimum state funding to at least $4,500 per student, the Detroit News reported then./p>

Hirsch Pescovitz said the idea wasn’t “to take any money from any of the better-funded universities, but we propose that as money becomes available, there should be some equity among the state universities.”

She said she was “absolutely thrilled to see that the governor's budget makes an effort to begin to address that inequity.” 

The push to even the funding playing field among state universities echoed efforts in K-12 education. Last summer, Michigan lawmakers agreed to make the state’s portion of the per student rate equal across school districts.

Hirsch Pescovitz said she believes the minimum-funding proposal will be approved, though it, like the rest of the governor’s budget plan, must be negotiated with the Republican-led Legislature.

“The investment that the state makes in raising us to a minimum level of support has a very high return on investment in excellent high-paying jobs that improve the economy,” she said.

The head of the organization that represents Michigan’s public universities called the governor’s proposal “a big step for turning around two decades of disinvestment in higher education.”

Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said he understands why some funds are one-time expenditures, a nod to billions of additional dollars flowing into the state from federal COVID funds and surprise state revenue surpluses.

If the governor’s plan is adopted, Hurley said, “It will make a meaningful impact on college affordability and specifically, tuition increases heading into the next academic year.”

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A survey of studies collected by The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, an industry group based in Colorado, found a positive correlation between the amount of state-funding to universities and the level of in-state college enrollment and degree completion. 

Hurley told Bridge that while the governor’s proposal is strong, he would have liked to see a larger proposed investment in the Michigan Competitive Scholarship. Hurley had recently called for a $400 million expansion of the scholarship, available to undergrads based on a qualifying SAT test score and demonstrated financial need.  Students can use it to go to any community college, public university or degree-granting nonprofit independent college in Michigan. According to Hurley, the scholarship is currently funded at $30 million. 

Students approved for the scholarship can receive up to $1,000 a year. Whitmer proposes raising that number to $1,200 in her budget proposal; the state budget office said such an increase “can be absorbed within current appropriation levels.”

“We are going to continue to press in the months ahead, years ahead, for a much larger state play when it comes to financial aid,” Hurley said. 

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