STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Michigan's students leave college with some of the highest debt levels in the nation

woman in cap and gown
Schlüsselbein2007 / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0


That is the average amount owed by each student who graduated college in Michigan last year. The number comes from a report released today by the Institute for College Access & Success's Project on Student Debt. The report reveals that 63% of college graduates in Michigan last year had at least some debt when they graduated. Michigan ranked eighth in the nation for the average size of that debt. 

And the institutions where students graduated with the highest amount of debt may not be the ones you'd guess. 

Two of Michigan's public universities make the report's list of "high debt" institutions. They are Ferris State University and Michigan Technological University. The average debt of Ferris graduates last year was $37,325, according to a breakdown of the report's findings. Average student debt at Michigan Tech was $34,903. 

Adrian College makes the report's list for "high debt" private colleges and universities, with an average student debt of $41,763 in the class of 2013. 

Both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University reported relatively low-levels of student debt, at least compared to other institutions in Michigan. The public university with the lowest reported level of student debt in Michigan was Wayne State, where the class of 2013 owed an average of $23,136.

In total, 63% of college graduates in Michigan last year left school with some amount of debt. 

So why are Michigan's college students graduating with more debt than students in 42 other states? One tempting answer is to say that Michigan's universities charge more. And, in fact, the average tuition at four-year public universities in Michigan is among the highest in the nation, according to a report from the College Board. Here's a chart from that report, where you can see Michigan's ranking sixth from the right: 

Credit Source: College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2014 report

But this doesn't tell the whole story of why college debt is so high in Michigan. Michigan has a higher than average tuition rate at its public universities in part because the University of Michigan is so expensive compared to almost any public university in the country. But, as the report from the Project on Student Debt shows, the U of M is not the main contributor to high levels of student debt in this state. 

"The NASSGAP report shows that only seven states cut their scholarship funding from the 2002-03 school year to the 2012-13 school year. And, on a percentage basis, Michigan's cut was the largest by far."

There is one other explanation to consider, and it comes from yet another report from yet another organization. The National Association of State Student Aid & Grant Programs has been issuing annual reports on state-level scholarship and loan funding for decades. The latest report, which covers the 2012-13 academic year (and which you can find on this list) shows that Michigan ranks 27th in the nation for the total amount of scholarship money offered to its college students. This is despite the fact that Michigan has a higher student population than many other states. 

Michigan's ranking in student scholarship funding has also dropped dramatically over the past decade. The NASSGAP report shows that only seven states decreased scholarship funding from the 2002-03 school year to the 2012-13 school year. And, on a percentage basis, Michigan's decrease in funding was the largest by far. State funding for scholarships in Michigan dropped 57.5% in that 10-year period. Our state went from having the 10th-highest amount of scholarship funding in the country to having the 27th highest. 

It's not a secret how that happened. Nearly all of the funding decline came from the elimination of the Michigan Promise scholarship in 2009. Those cuts came at time when Michigan's economy was faltering, and the state budget was a mess. 

Michigan's economy is now on the mend, and state revenues are increasing. 

Some of the new money coming in is being spent on different priorities. One example is the expanded investments in preschool. If you took away all of the money going toward educating four-year-olds right now in Michigan, you'd have enough to fully restore the cuts made to college scholarship funding. But, as we've reported extensively here on State of Opportunity, the evidence suggests that money is being well-spent on the four-year olds. One of the biggest benefits is that preschool investment will make it more likely that kids will go on to college. 

It's just that, in the current setup, kids in Michigan will also be more likely to leave college with a lot of debt. 

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.