Whitmer pushes college aid. But success rates vary wildly at Michigan schools

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing an $80 million to $100 million expansion of college aid. But Michigan’s return on investment will depend to a sobering degree on which colleges that anticipated influx of new students attend.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer unveiled plans for a broad expansion of taxpayer-funded financial aid during her State of the State address this month, with the goal of getting more students enrolled in college.

But how much return the state will get for an anticipated $80 million to $100 million annual investment depends to a sobering degree on which colleges that anticipated influx of new students attend.  

A Bridge Magazine analysis of federal data found Michigan colleges where less than one in seven students leave with a degree and others where the majority graduate. The net cost for low-income students is three-times higher at some colleges than others, and the average salary 10 years after enrollment at four-year schools varies wildly as well, from less than $30,000 to more than $80,000.

Those campus-to-campus disparities, and how Whitmer’s still-evolving plan address them, could make the difference between success and failure for both for one of the governor’s most ambitious proposals, and for students entering college for the first time.

More college, better economy

Whitmer views increasing college attainment as a key to boosting Michigan’s economy. A bachelor’s degree can boost lifetime earnings by almost $1 million over a high school diploma. The majority of new jobs require some form of post-high school education.

Michigan now ranks 30th in the nation in the percent of working-age adults (age 25-64) who have an associate’s degree or higher, and 32nd in the country when career-related certificates are included.

Michigan still behind

The percent of adults with a college degree – associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degree – is lower in Michigan than the nation. If high-quality certificates are included, Michigan is even farther behind.

1Dist. of Columbia63.4
5New Jersey49.7
 United States42.4

Whitmers’ plan, with details still in the works, calls for making two years at a Michigan community college free for most recent high school graduates,  and providing an equal dollar amount of scholarship money toward tuition at Michigan public universities and private nonprofit colleges for students from families with annual incomes under $80,000.

Called the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, the plan must be approved by the Legislature.

There are metrics for students to qualify, such as participating in community service and, for students attending four-year colleges and universities, a 3.0 grade point average.

There are no metrics for colleges.

Gap narrows

Despite having a smaller percent of adults with a college degree, Michigan has closed the gap with the nation when looking at associate’s degrees and higher.


Source: Lumina Foundation


The Baker dilemma

Baker College is emblematic of the challenge Whitmer’s initiative faces when return-on-investment is considered.

The private, nonprofit college enrolled more than 10,800 students who qualified for federal low-income Pell Grant scholarships at its eight campuses around the state in fall 2016.

Under Whitmer’s current proposal, it’s unclear whether Baker students would qualify for the Opportunity Scholarship. A fact sheet on the proposal given to reporters following the State of the State address lists college providers as “public community colleges," “public," and "not for profit private colleges and universities.” Baker primarily offers two-year programs, but also offers some bachelor’s degrees.

The Whitmer administration did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Baker’s 10,000 low-income students may be significant to Whitmer’s goal of increasing the number of adults with degrees. Michigan’s low-income residents are currently the least likely to hold post-high school credentials.

But relatively few Baker students leave the school with a degree. The graduation rate among Baker students is 14 percent, and students who take out federal loans leave the school with an average debt of $23,000.

That’s twice as much as students who attended Michigan’s two-year community colleges, according to the Bridge analysis. Ten years after enrolling at Baker, most former students earned less than average high school graduates ($27,200, compared to $30,065 for the average employed high school grad).

Public, private 2-year schools

Schools are listed by how they fare in five categories: Average net price (for in-state students), graduation rate, median earnings, median debt and the percent of students who were current on their loans three years after leaving school. The schools with the best rankings are at the top.

Net priceLow-income
on debt
Schoolcraft College
$4,23331.8 %$32,700$8,31629.9 %17.8 %
North Central Michigan College
Glen Oaks Community College
West Shore Community College
Delta College
Gogebic Community College
Muskegon Community College
Macomb Community College
Grand Rapids Community College
Bay de Noc Community College
St Clair County Community College
Monroe County Community College
Oakland Community College
Kirtland Community College
Lansing Community College
Kalamazoo Valley Community College
Northwestern Michigan College
Jackson College
Southwestern Michigan College
Henry Ford College
Kellogg Community College
Mott Community College
Lake Michigan College
Wayne County Community College District
Baker College

Jason Brown of PublicCity PR, spokesman for Baker College, attributed the school’s outcomes to the college being structured in the past as a “right to try” school, meaning students were enrolled that were not necessarily deemed college-ready, but Baker offered them opportunities and worked to help them achieve the academic and social/emotional readiness needed to excel in a college setting.

“Unfortunately, many of these students were not successful, which resulted in some of the poor data results being studied in this article,” Brown said. “Baker's enrollment requirements have since changed [in 2017,] and only those that meet new, stricter requirements become Baker students. This model is helping to ensure that more Baker students are successful in their endeavors, both during their time in college and after their graduation.”

Community colleges are cheaper than Baker (where the net cost is about $12,000 a year, twice that of most community colleges), but graduation rates are equally dismal.

Ten thousand-student Oakland Community College has a 9 percent graduation rate, for example. Tiny Gogebic Community College, enrolling about 800 students in the Upper Peninsula, has the highest graduation rate among the state’s community colleges at 38 percent.

Mike Hansen, executive director of the Michigan Community College Association, urged caution about reading too much into community college graduation rates.

Hansen said graduation rates at community colleges are deflated by students who transfer to four-year institutions without earning an associate’s degree. The federal data also only looks at completion rates for first-time, full-time students – a small slice of students at community colleges, who tend to be older and attending school part-time, Hansen said.

Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, an organization that works to increases access and enrollment, said graduation rates at community colleges are trending upward.

“The data lags,” Johnson said. “It’s not capturing improvements and better transfer policies to four-year universities.”

Bang for the buck, or a whimper?

As envisioned now, the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship wouldn’t cover the full tuition at any four-year school, leaving students to make up the remainder of the net cost through loans. That net cost can vary by tens of thousands of dollars between schools over four years.

For example, the net cost for low-income students (families with incomes under $30,000) is almost twice as high at Eastern Michigan University ($12,176) as at Michigan State University ($6,665).

Public, 4-year schools

Schools are listed by how they fare in five categories: Average net price (for in-state students), graduation rate, median earnings, median debt and the percent of students who were current on their loans three years after leaving school. The schools with the best rankings are at the top.

Net priceLow-income
on debt
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
$14,89715.2 %$63,400$19,15379.1 %90.7 %
Michigan Technological University
Michigan State University
Ferris State University
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Grand Valley State University
Northern Michigan University
Lake Superior State University
Oakland University
Wayne State University
Western Michigan University
Central Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University
Saginaw Valley State University
University of Michigan-Flint

Less than 40 percent get degrees at Wayne State, Saginaw Valley State University and the University of Michigan-Flint; nine out of 10 graduate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

The average wage earned by former students varies wildly, too. Former Michigan Tech students earn nearly double the income of former Northern Michigan University students ($66,400 to $35,500) 10 years after enrollment.

Michigan’s private nonprofit colleges, with enrollment of more than 45,000 students, have similar disparities in student outcomes.

Former students of Kettering University, a primarily engineering school in Flint, earn an average of $80,000 a decade after stepping foot on campus. Alma College has a similar graduation rate to Kettering (both are between 60 percent and 70 percent), but post-graduation earnings for former Alma students is about half of Kettering grads ($42,200).

Private, 4-year schools

Schools are listed by how they fare in five categories: Net price, graduation rate, median earnings, median debt and the percent of students who were current on their loans three years after leaving school. The schools with the best rates are at the top.

Net priceLow-income
on debt
University of Detroit Mercy
$21,87229.1 %$47,100$23,25069.3 %65.4 %
Kalamazoo College
Calvin College
Albion College
Northwood University
Hope College
Alma College
Cleary University
Madonna University
Kettering University
Aquinas College
Lawrence Technological University
Spring Arbor University
Cornerstone University
Siena Heights University
Andrews University
Grace Bible College
College for Creative Studies
Adrian College
Olivet College
Rochester College
Finlandia University
Davenport University
Marygrove College

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Judith Schmidt
Wed, 02/27/2019 - 9:13am

Where is the data for Washtenaw Community College?

Mike Wilkinson
Wed, 02/27/2019 - 3:29pm

Ms. Schmidt: We looked at schools where the 'predominant' degree was an associate's. At Washtenaw, according to the federal data, the predominant degree is a certificate.

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 9:17am

The graduation rate for community colleges is meaningless, since the large majority of students transfer their credits (mostly general education courses) to a university for a bachelor's degree program. In addition, few community college students are in two-year associate degree programs.

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 9:20am

If the goal is to increase the number of people in Michigan with degrees / advanced training, then a better analysis would be how many specific job openings are in Michigan and what is the forecast employment. No sense paying someone to get trained in a field that does not have a need for trained people in Michigan, and then have those people move out of State for their job.

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 9:23am

Thank you for the article. I followed up 18000 students by phone after they graduated high school and I did 1 year,3year,5 and 6 year follow ups of students. I was a little confused by the net category. R.L.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 5:55pm

My child is in Algebra and gets points knocked off his tests for not using proper units after the numbers. This article should have points knocked off, too. These tables only make sense if, by net price, the author is referring to the cost of tuition (not including room and board) for only one year of studies.

Larry Andreano
Wed, 02/27/2019 - 12:11pm

The state (or Federal Government) should not be subsidizing college at all. It is unfair to the majority of citizens that choose not to go to college. So instead of trying to see how much more unfair the state can be to most of its citizens we should be thinking about how to get the state out of subsidizing a business that only a small percentage of citizens utilize.

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 03/02/2019 - 11:30am

Perhaps graduation rates are more determined by the requirements go get in? Here are two ideas - 1. Give free tuition one semester. Those who end with a C or B or better get another semester of Free tuition. Reward completers. 2 - Give scholarships or lower tuition for students in 3rd and 4th year of college. Standardized tests and/or High School GPA are not always good predictors of success. Students in poverty especially single parents even with high scores will often struggle. Colleges need to do more for those students (not necessarily with $). And of course high schools could do a better job of preparing students for college.

John P
Tue, 03/05/2019 - 8:09am

In the second line of section "Bang for the buck or a whimper" you state they must make up the balance with "a loan". What about "work" or "savings"? I saved for college, then I worked during college. Why don't we expect people to do those things any more?