STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

I'm the reason states no longer offer generous college scholarship programs. Sorry about that.

Dustin Dwyer

I didn't pay to go to college. In fact, I made a profit from it. My scholarships covered all my expenses, and I had a few hundred bucks left over every semester. 

It was a pretty sweet deal. But I'm pretty sure I ruined it for everyone else. Sorry about that. 

I started thinking about my college experience last week, after hearing news of a new scholarship program in Grand Rapids that will cover all the costs of higher education for up to 200 students a year who come from the city's west side. The announcement was described as "huge news" by one of my local TV channels the night the story broke. And, of course, it was. 

It's easy to forget that, not long ago, many states had scholarship programs that were much larger and, in some cases, much more generous than any of the "Promise" type scholarships we've seen in the past nine years.

The new Grand Rapids Challenge Scholars program was inspired in part by the Kalamazoo Promise, the generous citywide scholarship program which continues to be huge news almost nine years after it was first announced. Both programs are part of a new and growing model for how to pay for college and create economic growth in cities across America. These programs are local, and usually funded through private philanthropy. 

But as generous as these programs are, it's easy to forget that not long ago, many states had scholarship programs that were much larger and, in some cases, much more generous than any of the "Promise"-type scholarships we've seen in the past nine years. 

I haven't forgotten. One of those generous state programs changed my life.

I graduated high school in Florida in 1999, two years after the state launched the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship Program

Bright Futures is a merit-based scholarship, which means it only goes to kids with the highest academic achievement. There are three scholarship levels, covering college costs to varying degrees. At the time I graduated, the highest level covered 100% tuition to any state university, plus extra money for any "mandatory" fees associated with college. If I remember correctly (and, really, this is just my recollection), I received an extra $300 per semester for books.  

To get the scholarship, I had to get a certain score on the SAT, I had to graduate high school with a certain GPA and I had to log at least 75 hours of community service. 

In my first year of college (Go Bulls), I was one of 24,274 students in Florida to earn a full-ride scholarship. We cost the taxpayers of the state more than $65 million that year alone. 

And that's just to pay for the kids who got a full ride like I did. Another 46,733 students received some level of scholarships in the 1999-2000 school year under Bright Futures, bringing the total cost of the program that year to $132 million.

... in that one random year, Bright Futures covered 25 times more students than the Kalamazoo Promise covered in its first seven years.

To put that in perspective, the Kalamazoo Promise paid tuition for a little more than 2,800 students in its first seven years. My first year in college, Florida's Bright Futures program covered more than 70,000 students. 

So, in that one random year, Bright Futures covered 25 times more students than the Kalamazoo Promise covered in its first seven years. 

Florida's Bright Futures was (and is) a huge program. But it's not the only program of its kind. Bright Futures was inspired by Georgia's HOPE scholarship. Michigan even had a similar, though less generous, program. It was called the Michigan Merit Award. 

What all of these programs have in common today is that they've all become drastically less generous over time to kids who want to go to college. The Michigan Merit Award doesn't exist anymore. And while both the HOPE scholarship and Bright Futures have grown in terms of the number of kids served, neither offer full tuition any more. This year, the Florida legislature voted to drastically alter Bright Futures, and the state estimates that half as many students will be eligible for the program starting next school year. 

So, if there's so much enthusiasm for privately-funded scholarship programs like the Kalamazoo Promise, why have states cut back so much on their generous scholarships?

In short, it's because of people like me. 

One of the problems with merit-based scholarships like Bright Futures is that they only help kids with high academic achievement. In that way, the scholarships can exacerbate problems of education inequality, rather than cure them. In my first year of college, 76% of Bright Futures recipients were white. I was one of the 76%.

Another criticism of merit-based scholarships is that they often go to kids from families who don't really need the financial support. We know there's a huge academic achievement gap between kids from high-income families and kids from low-income families. If a scholarship is based solely on achievement, you're going to get a disproportionate share of kids from the high-income group. 

These problems are so serious that the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education has actually opened up an investigationof Bright Futures for civil rights violations. 

But I don't think these problems are the real reason large state-funded scholarship programs are on the decline. They're really just design flaws, and they could be overcome with different eligibility requirements. 

The real reason these programs are in decline is that college is a lot more expensive than it used to be. Paying for a tens of thousands of students to get a full ride to college is a much bigger burden on taxpayers than it was when I went to school. 

And the biggest problem of all is that there's no guarantee it will ultimately pay off for the state. 

Just look at me. Florida taxpayers invested thousands of dollars to send me to school for four years. What did I do as soon as I graduated? I moved to Michigan.

Giving me a full ride to college may have been a great investment. My family wasn't in poverty when I graduated, but we weren't too far from it. I qualified for reduced lunch, which is often an indicator of "economic disadvantage." So, I actually did need the scholarship. Without it, I doubt I would have made it through college. I definitely wouldn't have made it in four years. 

Having a college degree has benefited me tremendously. My current salary puts me firmly in the middle class. All of my current spending, all of the taxes I pay every year can be seen as the "return on investment" for my college education. 

But none of those benefits really go to the people who paid for my education: the taxpayers of Florida.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.