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Obama's proposal could make Michigan community colleges free to many

Jan 9, 2015

This week, the White House rolled out a proposal to provide free community college tuition to qualifying students, which could remove financial barriers to post-secondary education in Michigan, where just one in three people has an associate’s degree or higher.

Before we dive too far in, here are the “buts.”

1)      Nobody in the White House is saying how much it would cost right now, but obviously it wouldn’t be cheap, and the chance of this Congress liking anything the president does, much less going for a big new spending item, seems small.

2)     Even if it does happen, states would have to opt in to be part of the program. And those states would have to cover a quarter of qualifying students' tuition, with the federal government covering the other three quarters.

3)     There’s also the complaint that this wouldn’t help the most needy, since Pell grants are already available for the lowest income students. And this proposal would only cover tuition that isn’t already paid for by other programs, according to the New York Times.

Still, let’s say this does get past Congress, and Michigan does opt in. What would that look like? How many people would go to school that wouldn’t otherwise enroll? Do we have the capacity to handle a potential surge?  

Yes to that last question, according to Adriana Phelan of the Michigan Community College Association. She says with 28 community colleges spread across the state, the infrastructure is there. Still, it would take some evolution, including some changes in both the state’s K-12 schools and four-year colleges.

For one thing, affordability is not the only barrier to graduating with a degree.

Right now about 60% of students who go to Michigan’s community colleges, according to Phelan.

“So it’s critical that we work across the entire pipeline to make sure that these students coming from K-12 are college and career ready, to make sure that we are providing these students with degrees of value.”

And four-year schools would need to work with community colleges to make sure students are able to transfer their credits.

“This policy proposal has a significant potential impact for Michigan, and we will be looking very carefully at the requirements for this program,” Phelan says.

“It would remove the financial barrier to post-secondary education. That has the potential to really shift the culture in Michigan.”