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Universities, Colleges Debate Community College Guarantee

By Elena Durnbaugh
Staff Writer
Posted: March 29, 2024 11:10 AM

Advocates for Michigan's community colleges and universities debated how Governor Gretchen Whitmer's proposed two years of free community college would affect post-secondary institutions during presentations before a House Appropriations subcommittee.

In February, Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley argued that by limiting the program to just community colleges, enrollment at four-year public universities would decrease.

Michigan Community College Association President Brandy Johnson said that the program wouldn't poach students but would reach those who aren't enrolling in any post-secondary education after high school.

The leaders of both groups testified before the House Appropriations Higher Education and Community Colleges Subcommittee .

Hurley celebrated the governor's commitment to making post-secondary education affordable and accessible but said his organization has concerns about the proposed Community College Guarantee.

"Holistically, we are not unilaterally opposed to free community college, but we do have some concerns," Hurley said.

"I can feel that dark cloud with the example of Tennessee's loss of revenue for those first two years," Rep. Nacy De Boer (R-Holland) said. "I can see why you would like both community colleges and universities to be included in this new plan. It's definitely unintended consequences that we need to think through as we approach this new idea."

Hurley suggested a universal two years of free tuition at a community college or university, as was proposed by the Growing Michigan Together Population Council. He also suggested one year of free tuition at a four-year university or community college.

The state could also maximize the Michigan Achievement Scholarship and make it a flat-dollar amount or increase scholarship awards for students enrolled at a public university.

There are currently about 256,000 students enrolled at Michigan's 15 public universities, and for the first time in 12 years, freshman enrollment was up 4 percent, Hurley said. He credited the Michigan Achievement Scholarship for making college more accessible.

Johnson pushed back against Hurley's assessment.

Johnson said that the proposed community college guarantee isn't likely to poach students who would be attending four-year universities, but rather the 53 percent who did not enroll anywhere after high school.

"Those students that did not enroll we posit that by making community college tuition free and sending a very clear and simple message to students that they will not have a tuition bill," she said. "That message will speak to … these students that did not go anywhere at all."

The Michigan Achievement Scholarship has already made public universities more accessible, Johnson said.

"It's a massive investment to help bring down the cost of those students attending four-year universities. We want those students to continue to enroll in four-year universities. That's good for them," she said. "That doesn't mean that this community college guarantee is not good for them."

Making the guarantee applicable to both two- and four-year institutions would be "astronomical," Johnson said, but the cost to guarantee two years at community college would be roughly $20 million.

Further, the guarantee creates a pipeline for four-year institutions, Johnson said.

Community college enrollment has increased, Johnson said. During the last full academic year, 280,453 students attended community college, which was a 3.7 percent increase in fall 2023.

"We as an association, and our individual colleges, have made significant commitments to improving our completion rates and our success rates for our students,' she said. "And we won't take our foot off the gas."

To strengthen the governor's recommendation, Johnson said community colleges would like to see a transfer guarantee for community college graduates who want to pursue a bachelor's degree at four-year colleges and universities in Michigan.

"Dr. Hurley talked about the potential loss of revenue for that first and second year but didn't address the possible huge gains and revenue in the third and fourth year for students that transfer," she said.

Johnson also recommended increasing the additional funds the plan makes available for low-income students from $1,000 to $2,000, and to convert students that enrolled in community colleges in 2023 to the new community college program so that the state wouldn't have to administer two sets of rules.

"Policy shouldn't be made based on potential inputs without looking at the outputs and outcomes," she said.

After Tennessee introduced its community college program, the number of people with a degree or certificate in the state increased, Johnson said.

"We should keep our eyes on the prize of attainment," she said.

Both Johnson and Hurley underscored the need for increased funding for maintenance and infrastructure at two-year and four-year schools.

Hurley praised the commitment to education reflected in the governor's budget but requested capital outlay authorization. Capital outlay project funding goes toward new construction on college and university campuses.

"We really want to have that recognition from the state that it's important to preserve our campus assets," Hurley said. "We did a survey a couple of years ago, and we had upwards of a $4.4 billion backlog of deferred maintenance needs."

Despite the historic levels of investment in education over the last several years, Hurley said the state is still behind.

"We've gone from 20th in ranking in per capita fiscal support for higher education to 41st," he said. "When you look at institutional operating support provided to the universities and you adjust for inflation, it shows in the current fiscal year, we are at the same level as we were in 1982."

He asked for consistency in when and how many capital outlay projects would be funded.

Johnson said community colleges, like public colleges and universities, are in need of funding for infrastructure and deferred maintenance.

"We are very appreciative and hope that the Legislature may consider dedicating funding to items in this budget," she said.

She highlighted that community colleges have been underfunded by the state, with contributions decreasing over the last 25 years.

"With proper state support, community colleges will have more resources to accomplish our shared goals to increase enrollment, support students through completion and reach the state's goal of getting 60 percent of our workforce able to attain a post-secondary certificate or degree by 2030," she said. "Sustainable state investment will ensure community colleges have the resources they need to keep up with rising costs while maintain affordable and high-quality programs."

Johnson said that by increasing state funding for community college operations by 10 percent for four years, the institution's funding sources would be in line with what they were originally intended to be, an equal balance between tuition dollars, property tax and state support.

Robert LaFevre, president of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities, also testified and raised concerns about eliminating the Michigan Tuition Grant in favor of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. He said several of the institutions within his organization have been able to create a tuition-free offering by combining both programs.

"The elimination of the tuition grants on the table, it has stopped our ability to package students in its tracks," he said. "We are just dead in the water, and this is going to have, we think, a detrimental impact … on applications and enrollment."

The subcommittee ran out of time for additional questions from lawmakers but work on the higher education budget will continue.

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