Michigan State University | Michael Gerstein
In my most recent column, I opined that President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student loan debt would do little to address the high cost of getting a four-year college degree or higher.
I also outlined a variety of reasons why college has become out of reach for so many, including rising operational expenses, substantial cutbacks in state financial support and insufficient financial aid, especially for students from low-income families.
But how do we lower the cost of college? It’s a complex question that has great importance in Michigan, which is not producing enough university graduates to keep up with the demand for them in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
I reported this in my earlier column, but it bears repeating: 37 of the 50 jobs projected by state labor force officials to have the best employment and income prospects by 2030 will require a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“Businesses grow where the talent is based,” Business Leaders for Michigan said in July. “The availability of highly skilled and educated workers will make the difference between states that excel and those that fall behind in the decades ahead.”
Michigan has steadily turned out more university graduates over the past decade, but still lags the nation in educational attainment. Last year, 31.7% of Michigan working-age adults had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35% of those nationwide. Michigan ranked 32nd among the states.
Certainly, there are many good jobs for available for those with less than a bachelor’s degree, particularly in areas such as the skilled trades, information technology and health care. And Michigan has made community college and trade school tuition free for hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible.
But state policymakers have been far less generous to universities and high school graduates seeking to enroll in them. As I previously reported, Michigan cut appropriations to its 15 public universities by an inflation-adjusted $1 billion over the past 20 years, according to the Michigan Association of State Universities.
Plus, Michigan ranks dead last in financial aid per student, according to a 2020 report by the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Cuts in university operational support and insufficient student aid have combined to put a huge strain on college students and scared off many more high school graduates from enrolling. So how do we fix a problem that has serious implications for students’ career futures and the state’s economy?
It starts in high school. Michigan has just one high school counselor for every 729 students, one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the country, according to the MLPP report. That makes it difficult for counselors to adequately help students navigating the college selection, application and student aid processes.
And once they get to college, many students are required to take remedial courses, which don’t count for credit toward a degree but cost as much. That drains the amount of money those students have left to complete a degree.
Improving the state’s K-12 education system would likely reduce the need for students to take expensive remedial courses. But using partnerships with colleges, K-12 schools could also offer college remedial courses through free adult education programs, said MLPP senior policy analyst Peter Ruark. That would require a boost in adult education funding.
Michigan limits how much universities can raise tuition in exchange for receiving operational funding increases from the state. But that has done little to make college affordable because the tuition base is already too high, Ruark said.
We don’t ask people to take out a loan for elementary school; we shouldn’t require it for college either.
– Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution senior fellow
For example, the state is boosting university funding this fiscal year by $56 million, the biggest increase in years. But universities are still allowed to raise tuition by 5%, the highest percentage increase since 2012.
The MLPP report said the state could negotiate an agreement with universities to restore funding to a level that would incentivize universities to “decrease tuition by a significant percentage.”
After that, additional state funding and tuition could only rise at the rate of inflation. But Ruark said that goal would be difficult to achieve in the current economic and political climate.
“It would take big thinking and a high budget priority,” he told me.
More financial aid also is needed to make college more financially accessible, especially for students from low-income families and for the last two years of a bachelor’s degree programs, which cost more than the first two years at many universities.
Help could come in the 2023 Fiscal Year budget, which has an unallocated $250 million for a proposed scholarship program. That program, which the Senate passed as the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, could pay high school graduates up to $3,000 a year for community college tuition and up to $6,000 a year for university tuition.
That would be a major step toward reaching Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of having 60% of Michigan adults with a postsecondary credential or college degree by 2030.
But a national policy expert says Michigan and the rest of the country need to go beyond just making college more affordable: families need a universal free four-year college option.
Andre Perry, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said the U.S. economy has become so advanced that most people need a college degree to participate in it.
“We don’t ask people to take out a loan for elementary school; we shouldn’t require it for college either,” he recently wrote.
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