Wayne State bets the word 'free' will lure students like it has at U-M

Wayne State

Detroit high school grads can attend Wayne State tuition-free beginning in 2020.

Wayne State University isn’t adding one dollar of college financial aid for graduates of Detroit high schools. But the school is adding one word:


And that may make a big difference.

At a highly publicized rally Wednesday, Wayne State announced that, starting in 2020, high school grads in Wayne State’s home city can attend the university tuition-free. 

Not mentioned in the news release is the fact that most Detroit students already attend Wayne State tuition-free, through a combination of state and federal grants, a Detroit Promise scholarship program offering money for college to Detroit residents, and financial aid handed out by the university.

Even so, the school and advocates for boosting Michigan’s college-going rate say the initiative ‒ which leans heavily on the word “free” ‒ is likely to expand the pool of city high school grads seeking entrance to Wayne, much as it has for another research university in nearby Ann Arbor.  

The Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge is aimed at stabilizing enrollment at the school and increasing the share of college degrees among residents of Detroit.

WSU Provost Keith Whitfield called the free-tuition pledge a “life changer” for Detroit youth, many of whom come from low-income homes and may have felt college wasn’t an option because of the cost.

The program covers tuition and fees, but does not cover housing or food. Higher-income students who graduate from Detroit high schools will also be able to attend Wayne State tuition-free, even though they do not qualify for state and federal low-income grants.

WSU associate director of communications Ted Montgomery acknowledged to Bridge there is no additional funding for the program.

“After students receive available state and federal dollars, as well as any other available scholarship dollars, the university will fill in any financial gap through existing institutional scholarships and grants,” Montgomery said. “The initiative will be sustainable because many of the students who take advantage of it are going to be students who qualify for Pell grants (federal grants for low-income students), merit scholarships and other awards.”

No financial aid dollars will be moved from students who are not Detroit residents to Detroiters, Montgomery said.

Why bring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in for an announcement of something that, other than an official name, already exists?

The answer lies 40 miles west, at the University of Michigan.

Despite having the most generous financial aid among Michigan’s public universities, U-M has historically struggled to get applicants from low-income homes across the state.

In 2016 and 2017, the university ran an experiment. 

“The basic idea is to take the lower-income graduating high school students (in Michigan) and divide them up into two groups,” University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel told Bridge in 2017. “One group gets a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, please apply to the University of Michigan and we offer generous financial aid.’ The other group gets a letter saying ‘Your school and principal have identified you as an outstanding scholar. If you apply and get accepted to Michigan we’ll guarantee you a free four-year tuition scholarship plus whatever other aid you qualify for.’

“That latter group, the application rate is 2 ½ times the former group,” Schissel said. “Two and a half times! These are changes you don’t see in the real world, right? So we went from 20-something percent of students applying with just a letter saying ‘You’re a great student, we give generous financial aid,’ to 68 or 70 percent of students applying when we say ‘If you get in, free tuition.’”

That experiment led to the “Go Blue Guarantee,” offering free tuition to any Michigan student with a family income under $65,000 who is admitted to the school.

The Go Blue Guarantee began in January 2018. Enrollment figures for fall 2019 released Wednesday showed that 20.5 percent of incoming freshmen were eligible for federal Pell Grants, federal funds given to students from families earning under $50,000 a year. That’s up from 17.9 percent last year, and 15.8 percent in 2017, before the Go Blue Guarantee went into effect.

“Students hear every day that college is too expensive. These programs change the conversation at the dinner table, that college is a possibility.” — Ryan Fewins-Bliss, Michigan College Access Network

Like Wayne State, U-M didn’t add money to financial aid through the tuition guarantee, and individual low-income students received the same amount of financial assistance as before. But a change in how that financial aid was described and publicly marketed to potential students made a difference in the number who applied.

So far, U-M and Wayne State are the only two public universities in Michigan with a “free tuition” program for a group of students from a geographic area or under a certain income, said Robert Murphy, director of university relations and policy at Michigan Association of State Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities.

“I know the institutions are struggling with how to make financial aid letters more understandable, and that word ‘free’ goes a long way,” Murphy said.

If the marketing blitz for Wayne State’s Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge attracts more Detroit student applicants like the Go Blue Guarantee lured more low-income students to U-M, it would be a win for both the university and the city in which it is located.

The proportion of Detroit adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher is half that of Michigan as a whole, 14 percent compared to 27 percent. Increasing the share of Detroiters with degrees would be an economic boon for the long-struggling city. Nationally, people with a bachelor’s degree earn more than $900,000 more on average over their lifetimes than people with a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, an increase in students would benefit Wayne State, where enrollment has fallen 13 percent in the past decade, from 30,820 in the fall of 2009 to 26,844 in fall 2019, one of six public universities to experience double-digit drops in enrollment in that time period.

Students are eligible for the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge if they:

  • Live in the city of Detroit and have graduated from high school or have graduated from any Detroit high school (public, private, charter, parochial, or home school program) in 2020 or after.
  • Join RaiseMe, a Wayne State partner, which allows high school students to log their achievements and activities to earn micro-scholarships.
  • Receive admission to Wayne State University as a first-time, full-time freshman in fall 2020 or after.
  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by March 1, for the following fall.  (Here’s a help page for filling out the FAFSA.)

Students graduating from any Detroit high school (public, private, charter, parochial) or from home school are eligible. Students remain eligible if they remain full-time students at WSU (12 or more credit hours per semester) and pass at least 30 credits per academic year at the university.

Gov. Whitmer vowed that the program brings Michigan “one step closer” to meeting her statewide goal of having 60 percent of state adults with postsecondary credentials by 2030. "Every Michigander deserves an affordable postsecondary education,” Whitmer said in the statement. 

Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, which advocates for increased access and affordability in higher education, said he considers Wayne State’s tuition pledge a big step forward for the state.

Students from low-income homes and families without a tradition of attending college often overestimate the cost of college, not realizing income-based grants often make it affordable, Fewins-Bliss said.

“Students hear every day that college is too expensive and college isn’t for them,” Fewins-Bliss said. “These programs change the conversation at the dinner table, that college is a possibility.”

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Thu, 10/24/2019 - 4:20pm

But of course "Free" has had a bad tendency to communicate over time that something really isn't worth very much.

Fri, 10/25/2019 - 10:03am

Let's try the experiment, keep good statistics and see what happens before condemning people from one of the poorest cities in the country of having the education we were able to buy. If students are graduating, finding work and paying taxes, then it is worth it. However, if it becomes a graduate rather than educate proposition, we'd have to re-think our investment.

Fri, 10/25/2019 - 11:24am

Good idea! Let's measure what is gained from the Kal. Promise! Lets stipulate, we're not measuring just the fact that a kid goes to college. What is the measurable gain to Kalamazoo from this investment? I haven't seen anything put together on this. Why is Wayne state is jumping on this boat before this data is compiled?

Wilma Kahn
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 10:31am

Kalamazoo Promise

Barry Visel
Fri, 10/25/2019 - 11:43am

Using taxpayer dollars is not “free”, especially when they turn around and say the State (taxpayers) don’t fund universities at a high enough level. “Free” would be using university endowment funds for this program.

Sat, 10/26/2019 - 11:30am

What about all the other students in Michigan who's families pay taxes for the support of state education being left out? Guess you could always say U of M is open to all residents but good luck gaining admissions there since they take only the top 10% of students. It's a nice gesture but it's totally unfair.