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U-M expands free tuition program to its Dearborn, Flint campuses

University of Michigan Dearborn
The University of Michigan’s Flint and Dearborn campuses have a higher percent of students who come from a working-class background and people of color than the student body in Ann Arbor. Administrators hope the free tuition program will enhance accessibility to a college degree and boost graduation and retention rates at the satellite campuses.

Thousands more students may be able to attend college tuition-free next year, after the University of Michigan expanded its Go Blue Guarantee program to its campuses in Dearborn and Flint.

In-state students from families with incomes under $65,000 and assets under $50,000 will be eligible to enroll at UM-Dearborn and UM-Flint tuition-free beginning this fall, if they meet certain GPA requirements.

Students would still have to pay other costs, such as books and housing if they live on campus, unless they qualify for additional financial aid.

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The Go Blue Guarantee tuition-free program has operated at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor since 2018, and officials credit the program for a slight uptick in enrollment among students from low- and moderate-income families. 

The percentage of students eligible for low-income federal Pell grants increased from between 15 percent and 17 percent before the program, to 20 percent in 2019. The percentage slipped back to 16 percent in fall 2020 during the pandemic, when schools across the country witnessed decreases in low-income student enrollment.

The free tuition program hasn’t been available for students enrolled at campuses in Flint and Dearborn, where a higher percentage of students come from low-income families and stood to benefit. In the fall of 2020, just 16 percent of incoming freshmen at Ann Arbor were eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are awarded to low-income students; At Flint, 39 percent of students were Pell-eligible; at Dearborn, it was 42 percent.

Thursday, the U-M Board of Regents, which oversees the three University of Michigan public universities, passed a 2021-22 budget that included an expansion of Go Blue Guarantee to Flint and Dearborn.

“Expanding the Go Blue Guarantee … is a significant increase in our investment in Flint and Dearborn,” Regent Mark Bernsteain said during Thursday’s meeting. “Most importantly, it’s an investment that is focused on student retention and success on these campuses.”

It’s unclear how much the tuition-free program will eventually cost. A report from the OneUniversity Coalition,a student organization that advocates for equitable funding across U-M’s three campuses, estimated that offering the Go Blue Guarantee at Flint and Dearborn would cost around $14.1 million per year.

While the three campuses operate under the University of Michigan umbrella, they have separate budgets and fund-raising operations. 

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor president Mark Schlissel said the Ann Arbor campus will pick up the tab for the program for six years. Flint and Dearborn are expected to secure future funding for the program through fundraising and philanthropies. Schlissel said the initiative already received a $1 million grant from the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for Flint students, and a “lead gift” from former Ford CEO Jim Hackett and Kathy Hackett for UM-Dearborn students.

The Ann Arbor campus has one of the largest endowments in the nation among public universities, at more than $12 billion, about 100 times bigger than UM-Flint’s $113 million. UM-Dearborn’s endowment is $56 million.

Offering free tuition to what amounts to half the families in the state at schools that enroll a large percentage of low-income students is a significant boost for a state trying to increase college attainment.

Michigan is below the national average in the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher (30 percent in Michigan, 33 percent in the U.S.), which stymies income growth and the ability of state officials to attract new businesses. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made increasing college attainment a major goal of her administration.

Lower-income students sometimes don’t apply to college because they think they can’t afford it, and money is one of the biggest reasons cited for dropping out for those who do enroll, said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that works to improve college access and affordability.

Free tuition can get people onto campus, and help keep them there. “It’s always great when schools expand these programs,” Fewins-Bliss said. “More money for students is a win.”

Free tuition programs are expanding across Michigan campuses, with more than 50 community colleges and four-year universities offering free tuition to at least some groups of students, generally based on income or geography.

Most state residents over the age of 25 who don’t have a degree can attend community college tuition-free through the new Michigan Reconnect program. 

At Michigan’s four-year public universities, there are tuition-free programs now at the three U-M campuses, Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University, Oakland University and Wayne State University. 

U-M officials did not project Thursday how many students would be eligible for the Go Blue Guarantee in Dearborn and Flint. There are about 9,000 students at UM-Dearborn, and 6,000 at UM-Flint.

About 1,700 Ann Arbor students are going to school tuition-free through the Go Blue Guarantee program, out of an undergraduate enrollment of about 31,000.

The program will apply to both incoming freshmen and currently enrolled students. There is a requirement that incoming students have a 3.5 grade point average or higher in high school, and returning students have a 3.0 GPA – a grade requirement not applied to the Ann Arbor version of the program.

That GPA requirement did not sit well with Nithya Arun, president of the Ann Arbor campus’ student government.

“While I was excited that the Go Blue Guarantee is being expanded to the Flint and Dearborn campuses, … this policy is laced with classist ideas of what hard-working, high-achieving students look like,” Arun told the regents Thursday. “A 3.5 GPA requirement for students who have to work so hard just to graduate from poorly-funded high schools, particularly in Flint and Metro Detroit, is unacceptable.”

U-M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told Bridge Michigan that while the GPA requirement may cause some Flint and Dearborn students to not be eligible for the tuition-free program, university officials felt that the GPA requirement was “consistent with the goal of helping high-achieving, low-income students across the state.”

The average GPA of admitted students at UM-Flint is 3.4, which is below the threshold for free tuition; at UM-Dearborn, it’s 3.6.

While the Ann Arbor campus doesn’t have a formal GPA threshold for Go Blue Guarantee like the one at Flint and Dearborn, the majority of students in the program easily surpass it. The average high school GPA of students admitted to UM-Ann Arbor and getting free tuition through Go Blue Guarantee is 3.8.

Daille Held, a student at Dearborn and member of OneUniversity, told Bridge Michigan she wouldn’t have to take out as many loans now that she is eligible for free tuition. 

However, Held called the GPA requirement “infuriating” and said OneU would advocate for it to be removed.

“I appreciate the work of the regents to get more funding to the Dearborn and Flint campuses in this budget,” Held told the board, “(But) if you claim to support these deserving students, this requirement must go.”

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