Residents like these programs to reduce college costs


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With college affordability much on the minds of Michigan families, residents support a variety of innovative programs that can earn students free credit hours and reduce post-degree debt.

For example, more than 72 percent support the creation of state programs that allow college graduates to forgive loans in exchange for agreeing to a stay in Michigan for a certain number of years after graduation, according to polls, panels and community conversations conducted by the Center for Michigan. These programs are often used for new doctors and dentists who agree to work at government facilities in underserved areas.

This year’s public engagement survey shows that residents value higher education yet are worried that its cost – which has doubled in the last 20 years – is putting a heavy financial burden on parents and graduates alike.

“My biggest concern is college debt. I have a lot of it, and people like me are taking entry level jobs and being in them for 5-plus years,” said one conversation participant and recent graduate. “Basically, we have to wait for someone to retire to move up, and that isn’t paying my loan payments.”

MORE COVERAGE: “Michigan wants Lansing, schools to lead on college affordability”

More than 4-in-5 participants in conversations and polls for the Center want the state to enact policies that expand opportunities to gain college credit for qualified high school students, a way to shorten college and reduce costs dramatically. Nearly 23,000 high school students took college classes in 2013-14, more than double who took advantage of such programs a decade earlier.

There was even support, though by only by a thin majority, for a more aggressive proposal to reduce the cost of higher education: making college free to Michigan residents?. The survey showed 52 percent of people in community conversations supported that idea, along with 56 percent of poll participants.

The findings come from the Center for Michigan’s fifth annual public engagement report, “Getting to Work: The public’s agenda for improving career navigation, college affordability, and upward mobility in Michigan.” The Center surveyed more than 5,000 Michigan residents roughly representing the demographic makeup of the state. The report is drawn from the views of more than 2,593 people participating in 149 community conversations across Michigan, with the rest participating through two large-sample telephone polls, an online panel and two online surveys of employers and educators.

Michigan’s grads have the 8th highest debt load in the country, with 63 percent of graduates from a survey of public and private universities having debt, which averages $29,583, above the national average of $28,400.

The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit working to make college more affordable and accessible, says high debt can have long-term effects on graduates, putting the brakes on major life decisions like marriage, buying a car or home, starting a business or saving for retirement or their own children’s education. College grads carrying large debts are also far less likely to make meaningful contributions to the state’s economy.

“I’m going to college in liberal arts, and I’m terrified about getting a job when I get out. I’m worried that I’ll be up to my eyeballs in debt,” one college student told the Center.

Growing southern states that have recently passed Michigan in population – Georgia and North Carolina – have similar debt rates, with 61 percent of students graduating with debt. But graduates there are carrying, on average, $5,500 less than their peers in Michigan. That means a monthly bill that’s $63 lower, on average, for 10 years.

College credits in high school

One of the most popular solutions to lower college costs are programs, currently used across much of the state, that allow qualified high school students to take college classes while they are still in high school. In some cases the classes double as college and high school credit. Across the state, qualified students are able to take classes at local colleges that can both double as high school credit or standalone as college credit.

Michigan now has 90 “early college” programs sprinkled across the state, which often allow students to get both their high school and college associate’s degree within five years.

Also popular are “dual enrollment” programs in which students take college classes that are paid for by their local public school district.

In the 2013-14 school year, nearly 22,800 high school students took over 54,300 dual-enrollment college classes, according to the state education department. The bill: $18.2 million in course fees, which are picked up by local school districts that would have otherwise been billed to students or their families had they taken the classes after high school graduation.

“That’s a lot of money that parents and students don’t have to kick in,” said Sam Sinicropi, with the Michigan Department of Education’s office on education improvement and innovation.

Michigan leaders recently expanded the program to allow qualified ninth and tenth graders to participate as well. Participation has more than doubled in the last decade but still only about 10 percent of eligible juniors and seniors take advantage of the program. And though there’s a cap on how many college classes a high school student can take at a time, there’s not a cap on how many kids can take the classes.

Users of the programs, however, have to be careful, said Don Heller, dean of the Michigan State University College of Education. Saving money is great but students must take care to ensure the classes they do take will transfer to the college they later want to attend.

“You’ve got to have programs that help students get credit toward their degree,” Heller said.

Reducing debt

Looking to solve the problem of student debt after they graduate is a proposal from state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, to grant a tax credit to graduates of any Michigan public or private colleges and universities – as long as they are nonprofit – equal to 50 percent of the annual interest payments they would owe in their first five years after graduation, if they stay in the state. It’s modeled after a similar plan in Maine .

Senate Bill 57, Hertel said, “is trying to lighten the load on people who have astronomical debt and also to get people to stay here, which is a problem,” he said.

The bill is currently in the finance committee and Hertel said there has been support. It’s an outgrowth of meetings he held with students who said they were afraid they would not be able to get a job that allowed them to pay off their loans.

It’s a widespread fear. In the Center’s report, 64 percent of conversation participants said high costs were either the No. 1 or No. 2 obstacle to completing college.

“It’s a very frightening time,” Hertel said.

Lowering college costs could help the state retain some of the thousands of graduates who take their newly-minted degrees and head for the border, participants said. The call to action comes at a time when the state’s leaders acknowledge that the future economic health of Michigan requires a larger population with college degrees or at least some level of advanced training after high school. Michigan now ranks only 33rd in the nation in the percentage of adult college grads, well below the national average.

“We’re losing a lot of the younger population,” said one participant, “and students have a lot of debt.”

All this talk about the rising cost of college can be a deterrent to low-income students and first-generation college students.

“Anything that sends the message, in particular to low-income students, that college is costly is problematic,” said Matthew Reed, program director for The Institute for College Access and Success.

Students and families should be given more need-based money, Reed said ‒ and the information that college can be made more affordable. “It’s hard to get that message across,” he said. “It’s not that simple.”

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Tue, 09/15/2015 - 10:45am
We've been told by Bridge and others for years what a unqualified, great monetary investment a post high school degree is, (and I would have to agree with a resounding - often and sometimes). But If this is the case, and the college degree leads to much higher incomes as is stated in Bridge so often, is a debt of $25k or $30K really that much burden (other than fewer $6 craft beers)? Can you really have it both ways?
David Zeman
Tue, 09/15/2015 - 12:29pm
Great question, Matt. And you're certainly correct for those students who are graduating with MD, engineering or other degrees into lucrative careers. I think what these reports and national research would show, however, is that much of this debt is falling on kids and families with lower incomes, who are first-generation college students, etc., and for whom this debt is not only a albatross once they graduate but is quite often the reason given for dropping out of school without a degree.
Tue, 09/15/2015 - 4:38pm
Exactly David, what area you are pursuing makes all the difference given individual abilities, but this isn't what is being communicated. Maybe the availability of loans and grants is incentivizing unrealistic/uneconomic degrees at 4 year (expensive) schools as opposed to more practical pursuits at much cheaper community colleges? Show me a university advisor telling a typical student that the Anthropology (or such) degree they pursue won't be worth the $100k investment (student's or taxpayer's), it doesn't happen, in fact they invent more no prospect degrees just to keep the revenue flowing in.
Thu, 09/17/2015 - 2:03am
Mr. Zeman, Are you saying that a students family status determines what degree program they can pursue? When say "much of this debt is falling on kids and families with lower incomes, who are first-generation college students," after you have mentioned the lucrative degrees the implication is that those students somehow are excluded from those degree programs where they could earn an income that would allow them to pay down their debt and not put that debt on to their family. What I would like to know is, why aren't more students pursuing the engineering and other lucrative degree programs? Is it the cost of a degree or is it the value that degree provides? I would think that the cost of the degree isn't so much the issue as it is the income from the degree. If the starting for a degree were $60,000 would a $100,000 debt an overwhelming burden? Would that degree be worth the cost over a career of 30, 40, 50 years ? I am a bit surprised that there was no interest by the participants in what the income distribution by degree or in acomparison of cost of a the various degrees vs. income from the individual degrees? I wonder if they had known that how it might have influenced their responses?
John Cee
Sun, 09/20/2015 - 9:40am
Let's just produce ten times the engineers we do now and watch as competition drives down the price of their services, leaving them in the fiscal ditch yet again. Good reasoning there.
Mon, 09/21/2015 - 11:16pm
In theory you are right, in practice not even close. There are so many non-residence Even if there was an over supply, as with lawyers, they would be better prepared for jobs outside their particular degree.
John Cee
Sun, 09/20/2015 - 9:38am
Yes. Yes, it is. Imagine having mortgage payments but you don't have a house. And even if gawdforbid something happens (car accident, disease, etc) you can never ever get out from under that debt. Also you would have take immediate job positions simply to pay off the debt. Never being able to take a lower paying job in your field to get in and work your way up.