Changing the narrative on funding higher education
While many have criticized Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for eliminating the Michigan tuition grant and the Michigan competitive grant, I actually applaud her goals of building up the work force and helping Michigan students achieve higher education without incurring debt.
The governor has the right to push policy she believes is best for Michigan voters. Elections do have consequences. Of course, the Michigan tuition grant is one of the best return on investments the state spends in higher education — $2,400 per student, which accounts for 2 percent of the state education budget and helps the neediest students afford higher education. It’s a small number for a big outcome.
It’s an admirable goal to strive for free higher education. I wish we could provide this to everyone. It’s a complicated conversation with no easy answers. But not everybody will be successful at a community college or a public university.
Often, private colleges offer more attention via small faculty-to-student ratios, and more ability to counsel students on the best way to pay for a degree. All institutions are united in our concern over the seemingly insurmountable college debt crisis. It’s the student loan system that is broken.
No one’s talking about in the way they need to be. The people defaulting on student loans are most often the individuals who do not finish college, who have $10-15,000 in debt.
Which means completion might be a bigger issue than the cost of college. How can we counsel students to not only choose the right institution for their higher education needs, but finish what they start?
Losing these grants could be another nail in the coffin for private institutions, or it could be the kick in the pants needed to change the way we fund higher education. It might inspire innovation in finding other funding sources, or counseling students differently before they enroll.
This argument between the governor and the state Legislature shows us how important it is to start a conversation on how we position our next generation here in Michigan for success.
The first step is to agree and understand that not every student is right in every type of institution. So we must expand the choices available to students today. There are public universities, which admittedly are not inexpensive anymore, and there are community colleges, which certainly offer the lowest tuition costs. And then there are private colleges.
If a student can’t afford any of these options, what good is it to have choices? If free tuition shifts public universities to target a greater share of out-of-state students, reducing acceptance rates of in-state students, who does it really benefit?
There is a way to navigate college and find ways to pay for it that gives students the power to become informed consumers. One way we do that is by counseling students against taking every dollar offered to them in loans.
Sometimes, students need to borrow money to afford higher education. Sometimes there is really no other way. I wish there were, and maybe one day we’ll get there. But in most cases, it’s not necessary to max out loans, to take everything the government offers, beyond the actual cost of tuition.
Doing so increases the college loan crisis and makes post-college life much, much harder. It also does not teach fiscal responsibility and we, as institutions, are remiss if we don’t caution and counsel students in this process.
We need a mindset shift, to approach education as an informed consumer, asking important questions about what provides the greatest benefit for each student and their unique needs.
Private colleges graduate 21 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in Michigan. We need to innovate the way we think about, and deliver, higher education. We must partner with high schools for dual enrollments and early college programs. We must help students earn credits while still in high school so they need less time — and pay less tuition overall — once they get to campus.
Universities and colleges feed the economies where they are located in Michigan, investing $3.3 billion collectively each year. We provide jobs. We arm students with skills and credentials to enter the work force. We provide culture and ties to the local community.
Higher education needs to be a quest for life-building, looking at the long game. How much will you earn 10 years out? How will you contribute to your community? How do we, as institutions, create good citizens?
We all want Michigan to be successful, but that doesn’t come from creating only one or two ways to get there. It comes from helping each person find their place. And that means we must fund many paths to get to the same goal.
Jayson Boyers is president of Cleary University.
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