Where they stand: Michigan governor candidates on college affordability

A college education has gotten increasingly expensive for Michigan students. Candidates for governor grapple with diverse solutions.

August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor
August 2018 update: Bill Schuette wins Republican nod for Michigan governor

Bridge Magazine asked Democratic, Republican and Libertarian candidates for Michigan governor what they would do to reduce college costs for Michigan families. Some answered the question directly. Others, not so much.

Those facing primary challenges include: Republicans Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, Attorney General Bill Schuette, State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, and Dr. Jim Hines; Democrats Gretchen Whitmer, a former state senator, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed and businessman Shri Thanedar; and Libertarians Bill Gelineau, a title insurance company agent, and John Tatar, who owns a construction company.

Thanedar and Schuette did not respond to Bridge’s questions, and Calley provided only a general statement on his education stances. For candidates who responded to Bridge’s questions, we are publishing their complete responses. We examined their campaign websites of candidates who didn’t respond in an effort to find a relevant response.

Each candidate was asked:

Name a policy that Michigan can implement that will reduce the cost to families of a college education, and where has that policy worked?


Gretchen Whitmer: As Governor, my administration will establish the MI Opportunity Scholarship to give every student the chance to get the skills they need to compete for good-paying jobs, whether college is right for them or not. The MI Opportunity Scholarship may be used at skilled training programs, community colleges or four-year universities for two years of debt-free postsecondary education.

To participate in the program, students will be required to have skin in the game by: maintaining a high attendance record and a good GPA for the preceding three years of high school; enrolling full-time and completing eight hours of community service per marking period; and participating in a mentoring program to assist with career navigation.

Tennessee has a similar program, called the Tennessee Promise, which gives students the opportunity to attend a skilled trade school or community college debt-free for two years. After implementing this program, the statewide college-going rate increased by over five percentage points. In an interview with the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, Whitmer said she estimates the cost of her program at $100 million. “I think when you’ve got a $50 billion budget, $100 million is a small piece of what I think is in the budget to pay for this and I think we would find fantastic return on that kind of an investment,” Whitmer said.

Shri Thanedar: On his website, Thanedar promotes free college for families earning less than $120,000 a year, and some level of debt forgiveness for graduates who stay in the state after earning their diplomas, and for college grads who start businesses that create jobs. In a separate interview with Bridge and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, Thanedar said he would pay for his college plan through cost savings from prison reform and increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy.  

Abdul El-Sayed: Any type of tuition-assistance program like those in California, Wyoming, and New Jersey lower attendance costs for all students. Our policy, however, is a tuition-free, debt-free option for Michiganders that provides students from families that make $150,000 or less with up to four years of debt-free postsecondary education or career training.  

Inspired by the success of Kalamazoo Promise, the MIScholar Grant would help cover the cost of attendance (COA) for any public college, university, and registered apprenticeship in Michigan, as well as non-registered apprenticeships that have been reviewed and approved by the Talent Investment Agency.

Living costs are the number one reason that low-income students don't complete higher education. The goal of the MIScholar Grant is to make it possible for Michiganders to get a degree or certificate without having to take on student loan debt. Tuition and fees account for only 50 percent of the total cost of attendance at Michigan’s public universities and only 21 percent of the total cost at our community colleges. That is why, unlike grants that only pay for tuition and fees, the MIScholar Grant will help pay for all costs – including tuition, room and board, and books and supplies – up to the full cost of attendance. Some options El-Sayed lists on his campaign website to pay for the program: Taxing income above the Social Security cap ($128,400 in 2018); earmarking revenue from recreational marijuana; and reducing corporate subsidies.


Bill Schuette: Schuette’s campaign website says Michigan should “make it easier for students to complete college credits during high school or fast-track through community college programs,” which would help decrease college costs.

Brian Calley: Did not reply directly to the question. His education policy on his campaign website does not make policy recommendations about cutting college costs, but does extol the benefits of career-ready training.

Patrick Colbeck: I support giving the legislature more oversight of our public state universities which would incorporate a better sense of checks and balances which we currently don’t have in Michigan. Our state universities have been raising tuition five times the rate of inflation and I think that would slow down if we had some limits on their autonomy.   Maybe we tie state funding to how well universities control tuition inflation or how quickly they graduate students.

Jim Hines: Dual enrollment. Anytime a high school student can get college credit it certainly saves that individual child and their family money.


John Tatar: The State of Michigan can reduce the cost of education by doing what this State can do to not be a party to inflation. Not to provide college to every citizen whether they make the grade or not. Provide other avenues of earning a good living, such as trades, new factories, training in other areas not requiring a college degree. After all, not everyone wants to go to college.  It is about choices.

Bill Gelineau: I’m a supporter of deferred college entrance (which allows students to earn more resources for college); accredited transfer of Community College credits; and alternative training opportunities. My budget reduces the singular focus on higher education as a government priority – instead, creating a market-basket choice for students to direct resources.

Many voices are questioning the use of college as a goal for all kids. And the use of subsidies direct to colleges creates a negative redistribution curve to the upper income quintiles.

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Thu, 07/26/2018 - 8:45am

No one ever asks or answers what it is that the state and tax payers should expect for their investment in higher Ed. Answer this question then we can go on to say what we should do. Too many candidates are too happy to just shovel cash.

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 8:57am

I believe anyone getting money from Michigan government should have, as candidate Whitmer says, some skin in the game. I also believe that the giving of money should be tied to the need that Michigan businesses have for certain skills. Certainly there is a listing at the State somewhere as to what people are required. In other words, if Michigan businesses are clamoring for accountants or engineers, then why pay for someone to study Latin. Absent that requirement, we are just paying for people to go to college with no prospect for a good paying job.

Fri, 07/27/2018 - 7:35am

Or worse yet, we pay to train them and then they finish up and move to Chicago!

W. Wright
Mon, 08/06/2018 - 9:19pm

I like pieces of what Thanedar, Whitmer, and Abdul said. Students having skin in the game (Whitmer), debt forgiveness for students staying in MI and starting businesses (Thanedar), and the options for a debt free 4 year ride (Abdul). If those ideas could be fused into one great plan the would be great for MI.