Dustin Blitchok is on the clock.
The Detroit resident figures he’ll finish his bachelor’s degree sometime. He says he probably has enough credits to quality as a senior at Wayne State University, but the 26-year-old has a full-time job, as editor of the Metro Times, that keeps him busy.
But if he doesn’t finish his degree within the next two years, he’ll no longer qualify for state financial aid.
That’s because Michigan offers no financial aid for adults looking to return to public universities and community colleges more than 10 years after high school. Economic development experts say is the age limit is hobbling efforts to help dropouts finish degrees.
It’s a head-scratching hole in the student financial aid system of Michigan, a state scrambling to increase the number of adults holding college degrees.
“To offer financial aid to traditional college students, but not to offer it to people with families who are 30 years old, that’s policy stuck in the 20th Century,” said Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst at the Michigan League for Public Policy, a progressive-leaning advocacy group in Lansing. “The reality is, a large number of students are not the traditional 18-24-year-olds.”
Nationwide about half of college students are 25 or older, with most attending college part-time.
As part of budget-cutting across state government at the height of the recession in 2010, the state Legislature eliminated three financial aid programs that focused on, or were available to, non-traditional age students: The Adult Part-Time Grant, which offered up to $1,200 in aid; the Michigan Economic Opportunity Grant which offered $1,000 per year to students of all ages, and the Michigan Nursing Scholarship and Work Study grant.
The absence of state financial aid leaves a lot of Michiganders with fewer options for returning to college. More than a million Michigan adults have some college credit but no degree, with hundreds of thousands estimated to be within a handful of classes of earning a diploma.
And yet today, nontraditional age college students enrolling in public colleges and universities are not eligible for state financial aid grants. One grant program is limited to students in their first 10 years after high school, and another has to be applied for before the age of 20. The third grant can only be used at private, nonprofit universities, even though the majority of nontraditional students attend public community colleges and public universities.
None of the three are available for busy adults taking college courses on a less-than half-time basis (Six credit hours must be taken per semester to qualify as part-time.).
“A lot of workers do need to go back, Ruark said, “and we should be helping them do that, especially low-income individuals.”
‘I drifted off’
Blitchok’s story is fairly common among those who leave college early. He was offered a full-time job while still in school. “I didn’t know if there was going to be another job like that open up,” Blitchok said. “I had to take it.”
Trying to be full-time newspaper reporter for the Oakland Press in Pontiac and a full-time student at Wayne State in Detroit proved to be too much.
“At that point, it was hard to finish because I was working 60 hours a week, working 40 miles away (from Wayne State),” Blitchok said. “So you’re leaving work at 6 o’clock and trying to get to campus through the snow and rush-hour traffic. You start dropping classes, and it slowly falls apart.
“I wrote a ton of stories and learned a lot (at The Oakland Press). Eventually, I drifted off.”
Now editor of metro Detroit’s major alternative newspaper, Blitchok is doing well in his chosen field. Still, he said he worries that the lack of degree will catch up to him at some point.
“If I look for a job nationally, I don’t know if I’d get attention without it (a bachelor’s degree),” Blitchok said.
GOP reform effort fails
An attempt to reinstate financial aid for nontraditional students failed in the Legislature this past spring. Rep. Paul Muxlow, R-Brown City, sponsored House Bill 4442 to offer up to $3,600 in state grants to nontraditional students enrolling at community colleges.
“I thought it would be helpful for the middle class,” Muxlow said. “There are a lot of people who, with a little help, maybe could get an associate degree, which could open the door to some higher-wage jobs. We tried to put a few bucks ($6 million) in the community college level as a starting point,” with the hope of expanding to bachelor’s programs later.
Muxlow said he doesn’t recall the bill having any real opposition, but the funding was cut to trim the larger state budget.
He said the bill could be revived in Lansing’s next lame-duck session, between the November election and the swearing in of new legislators in January, though no bill has been introduced.
“If we could get a little support to people who maybe have half or more of their coursework done, maybe we could push them over the top and at least get an associate degree,” Muxlow said.
Muxlow said he believes there is a good economic return for the state in offering financial support for college dropouts to finish their degree.
That same economic return is true on an individual basis for Blitchok and the other 1.2 million Michigan residents with some college credit but no degree. The average Michigan college dropout earned 12 percent less than the average owner of a two-year associate’s degree in 2010, according to Census data analyzed by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. That equals to a $200,000 income difference over a lifetime. That shortfall is tripled to a $600,000 difference when compared with a bachelor’s degree.
“I think it’s worse to start and not finish than to not have gone at all,” said Blitchok, who said he still has more than $40,000 in student debt. “It’s a system designed for those who finish.”