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Seven things to know about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s debt-free college plan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced dozens of recall efforts that have gone nowhere — but she’s used the efforts to trigger an election law loophole that allows donors to exceed campaign limits. (Bridge Michigan file)

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is pushing an ambitious revamp of Michigan’s college scholarship program. Administrative officials are working out details, and more changes likely would be at least debated in the Republican-led Legislature, which may or may not approve the proposal.

Related: Whitmer pushes college aid. But success rates vary wildly at Michigan schools
In Tennessee, a model for Michigan’s plan for debt-free community college

Here’s what you need to know:

Free community college for newly graduated high school graduates.

The Michigan Opportunity Scholarship would assure that recent Michigan graduates could attend the state’s 27 community colleges as full-time students without paying tuition or mandatory fees. While those costs vary by campus, that cost is currently around $3,000 a year.

Almost all students qualify – they just have to have graduated from a Michigan high school and have lived in Michigan for a year. Students have three years to complete 60 credits, which is the equivalent of two years of full-time study.

Related: Gov. Whitmer: Boost schools by $507 million, with more for neediest students

Students enrolling in four-year public or nonprofit private universities can get $2,500 annually for two years toward tuition.

To qualify for the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, students must have a 3.0 grade point average in high school and have a family income under $80,000 a year.

How much of tuition that covers depends on your income and which school you attend. For example, the net price of attendance (tuition, fees and housing minus scholarships) at Grand Valley State University is $11,247 for low-income students; at Michigan State, that same student would have a net cost of $6,665.

An estimated 50,000 students would qualify each year for the Opportunity Scholarship.

That figure, provided by the Whitmer administration, is based on current college-enrollment rates for high school seniors.

Michigan’s lowest-income students would benefit the least.

The scholarship would be “last dollar,” meaning other scholarships and grants are applied first toward tuition and fees. Low-income students qualify for federal Pell grants that typically cover the cost of community college.

So at community colleges, the state’s new scholarship program would primarily help middle- and high-income families.

Low-income students would benefit from the program at most four-year universities, where Pell Grants don’t cover all the cost of tuition and fees.

The cost to the state is estimated at $80 million to $100 million.

That estimate is from the Whitmer administration, based on estimates of how many students would qualify and tuition costs at state community colleges.

That may not be all new money. Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, has been involved with administration officials on the rollout of the program. She says some small existing scholarship programs that now benefit low-income students may be rolled into the new scholarship.

March 5: Six big proposals in Gretchen Whitmer’s first Michigan budget

For adults, there would be a separate program for free community college or technical training.

Called Michigan Reconnect, residents age 25 and older could enroll in community colleges, career certificate programs and union apprenticeships at no cost.

There’s no income cap and students can attend full-time or part-time.

Michigan isn’t inventing something new. This has worked in Tennessee.

Whitmer’s plan is nearly identical to Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, which has offered debt-free community college since 2014 and helped increase the rates of those attending college.

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