Michigan Considers Free Tuition
This is a terrible idea.

The University of Michigan at Flint


Michigan Democrats have introduced a plan to pick up the tab for tuition at state universities — up to $9,500 a year — for every student who has attended Michigan schools for his entire K–12 career. The plan is expected to cost $1.7 billion per year, or $442 for every household in the state. It is a dramatic change from the status quo — currently, Michigan subsidizes its state universities less than almost any other state. And it is a terrible idea — it is a handout to middle- and upper-class parents and students, as well as an incentive for unprepared students to attend college.

According to the Midwestern Higher Education Compact, Michigan’s colleges operate on a “higher tuition/higher aid” model — meaning that relative to other states’ colleges and universities, they charge a high tuition to students who can afford to pay, but then offer steep discounts to students from low-income families. Using this calculator, you can see estimates of what a college’s tuition plus room and board costs for in-state students in different income ranges, once grants and scholarships are factored in.

For students from families earning less than $30,000, a year at the University of Michigan at Flint costs $5,400. For students whose families make between $30,000 and $48,000 (the latter of which is approximately the state’s median income), tuition averages $7,400. Even students from families that make more than $110,000 don’t pay the sticker price of nearly $17,000; they pay a little above $12,000.

The flagship state university in Ann Arbor is also easily within reach for low-income students. “No loan” aid packages are available for the poorest students, and those from families making less than $30,000 pay $6,200 a year. Even if these students borrowed every cent they spent on higher education for four years — no summer job, no savings, no help from parents — their loan total would be around the nationwide average. Students from families making $30,000 to $48,000 pay $8,500. Students whose parents are in higher brackets, however, pay just above $20,000.

At Michigan State University, the “Public Ivy” school in East Lansing, prices are a little lower. Some other Michigan state schools are less generous, charging about $10,000 a year for students from families making less than $30,000 — but this includes room and board, which commuting students do not need to pay, and even a minimum-wage summer job can offset a few thousand dollars of that cost. Thus, it’s very difficult to claim that a struggling Michigan student who’s willing to take out some loans and work over the summer can’t afford to pay for college under the current system.

Further, not only do lower-income students already pay less in tuition, they’re less likely to go to college in the first place, in part because they score significantly lower on standardized tests. Therefore, the main beneficiaries of a $9,500 tuition discount will be middle- and upper-class parents and students. In large part, it would seem, this isn’t about expanding opportunity, but about buying votes.

Of course, the tuition that low-income students pay at Michigan state schools isn’t negligible, and free tuition would encourage Michigan students across all income levels to go to college. But is that a good thing? There is considerable evidence it is not.

It’s important to bear in mind that when a policy encourages more students to go to college, it is encouraging marginal students — the students who aren’t sure whether college is worth it at the current price. These students are more likely to be insufficiently prepared for college, to drop out once they get there, and to learn little even if they do graduate.

Michigan’s high-school-graduation rate is only 76 percent, and even most grads are not “college ready,” judging by their ACT scores. (“College ready” means a score of at least 18 in English, 22 in math, 21 in reading, and 24 in science. These scores give students a 50 percent chance of getting Bs or higher in college-level courses, or a 75 percent chance of getting Cs or higher.) At only 40 high schools in the entire state are more than 30 percent of graduates college-ready, and at more than half of the high schools, fewer than 10 percent of grads are college-ready. With college readiness this low — and with about 60 percent of Michigan high-school grads going directly to college as it is — it is doubtful that expanding access to college will do any good.

In fact, based on the current performance of college students in Michigan, too many, not too few, people are going to college in the state. Only 59 percent of Michigan college students graduate within six years (which is similar to the national average); the number is as low as 32 percent at the lowest-caliber schools. To be fair, these numbers don’t include students who start at one school and graduate from another, so they are a little low — but there is no doubt that a substantial minority of Michigan students who start college don’t finish, and that cheaper tuition will encourage even more students with dubious prospects to head to college.

One might argue that free tuition will help the dropout problem by enabling students to attend school without working; many dropouts claim that working while in school was too stressful. But college probably isn’t worthwhile for marginal students even if they do graduate — they learn little, and they don’t seem to benefit much in the labor market. Last year, the much-talked-about book Academically Adrift presented the finding that nationwide, about 45 percent of undergraduates “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.” And about 40 percent of college graduates end up working in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Michigan students who are willing and able to attend college — a small minority of the population — already have ample opportunity to do so, often at considerable taxpayer expense. For the most part, tuition is high only for students whose parents have high incomes, and overall, the evidence indicates that there may be too many students already going to college. There is no reason to pour more money into the fantasy of college for all.

— Robert VerBruggen (Twitter: @RAVerBruggen) is an associate editor of National Review.