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

Michigan led the nation in cutting college scholarships from 2003 - 2013

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
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Here is a fact you might not know: In the decade between 2003 to 2013, no other state cut its spending on college scholarships as much as Michigan. Only six states had cuts at all. But Michigan cut the most. And it wasn’t even close.

The state-by-state comparison comes from a little-noticed annual report released by the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs.

But the reason behind Michigan’s cut is well-known. 

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Click to enlarge
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Click to enlarge.

The big change happened in 2009. In an intense budget year, Republicans in the state senate stripped funding for Michigan’s biggest scholarship program - the Michigan Promise. It represented a $140 million item in the state budget, at a time when the state was running out of money.

"It is really hard to describe how quickly the budget picture was tanking," says Rick Pluta, who covers Lansing for the Michigan Public Radio Network. "The state’s revenue picture was worsening so quickly, it was almost impossible to be too pessimistic."

So Senate Republicans stripped the funding for the Michigan Promise. Democrats argued against it. But Pluta says because the budget picture was so bad, and getting worse, they didn’t really have an alternative.

In the end, legislators approved a somewhat unusual, but non-binding amendment that stated:

“It is the intent of the legislature that if the economy improves, and additional state revenue is available, one of the foremost priorities for the expenditure of additional revenue in the higher education budget will be to fund the provisions of the Michigan Promise grant act.”

And now here we are almost six years later. Revenues to the state have started ticking up. Governor Snyder has launched new spending programs such as an expansion of preschool, and now a plan that could raise taxes to fund road improvements.

But restoring the Michigan Promise is not on the table.

Should it be?

"The literature is very clear," says Donald Heller, dean of MSU's College of Education. "The best way to try to address the financial needs of students is through targeted scholarship programs that are based on financial need."

"I wouldn’t recommend that they simply resurrect the Promise scholarships," says Donald Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education. As a researcher, Heller’s spent a lot of his career evaluating higher education funding, particular scholarship programs.

"The literature is very clear," Heller says. "The best way to try to address the financial needs of students is through targeted scholarship programs that are based on financial need."

The Michigan Promise was not targeted at just the students who would have trouble affording college. It was what’s known as a merit-based program - anyone who met the academic requirements could get the scholarship.

And Heller says that’s not the way to get the most bang-for-the-buck when spending public dollars.

"The argument I’ve used in the past is it makes no sense from an economic and from an equity perspective for the state of Michigan to give a scholarship to Governor Snyder’s child, because Governor Snyder’s children are going to be going to college anyway, most likely, and they don’t need a subsidy from the state of Michigan."

In the state of Georgia, for example, Heller saysresearch shows about 90 percent of kids who benefited from its merit-based program would have gone to college anyway.

So Heller says, if Michigan decides to get back in the game of funding scholarships, it should look at a more targeted approach, so that the money only goes to students who really need it.

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.
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