Study: Rising tuition, state funding cuts add to students’ financial burden

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Deep cuts to state higher education funding from 2008 to 2018 shifted more tuition costs to college students who are already struggling financially, according to a recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute. 

State funding for public two- and four-year institutions for the 2018 academic year was “more than $6.6 billion below what it was in 2008, just before the Great Recession fully took hold, after adjusting for inflation,” per the Washington, D.C.-based institute’s findings. 

Students funding higher education after recessions | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities chart

For Michigan, that means tuition at four-year colleges increased by an average of $3,075 from 2008 to 2018. In that same time period, average state spending on Michigan students decreased by $898, according to data from the study.

Since the 2008 recession, resources allocated to students remain 13% lower per student, according to the study’s look at national trends. State spending decreased by about $1,220 per student.

State funding for higher education | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities chart

Rising tuition costs can be disadvantageous: it can affect students already imbued with loan debt, limit opportunities for students from non-traditional backgrounds or cut off further access to college altogether. Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU) CEO Daniel Hurley said Michigan is “out of sync” with other states when it comes to prioritizing investment in higher education. 

“Nationally, when you look at public higher education, states pay about 52% of the cost of tuition. And students and families pay the balance of about 48%. That’s current-day,” Hurley said. 

When it comes to Michigan, there’s a stark divide in those rates. 

“In Michigan, that ratio is 22% coming from the state, 78% coming from students through tuition,” Hurley said. “This shows how out of sync Michigan is in prioritizing public investment in higher education.” 

Hurley said increasing state operating support for universities and state financial aid for students are key ways to improve college affordability in Michigan. 

Study: Low-income, students of color squeezed in Michigan’s college affordability crisis

Several other recent studies, such as one by the New York-based progressive think tank the Century Foundation, also confirm that there’s a college affordability crisis in Michigan, especially for low-income students and students of color. That study found that Michigan is the 12th-lowest nationally for state support of public universities.

Another report found that Michigan ranked 44th nationally in per-resident support for higher education for Fiscal Year 2019, based on data compiled by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO).

Universities take action

In recent months, some Michigan colleges and universities have taken their own steps to address college affordability issues.

Michigan State University | Susan J. Demas

In fall 2019, Michigan State University adopted a “block tuition” model with the idea it would increase the number of students graduating within four years. It aligns with MSU’s “Go Green, Go 15” program, which encourages students to take 15 credits per semester for the same reason.

Under the model, students taking anywhere between 12 to 18 credits per semester are charged a flat rate of $7,320, unless granted a waiver. The flat rate is equivalent to the cost of 15 credit hours. Students taking 1 to 11 credits are still charged per credit hour, a current rate of $482.

But some students took issue with the model. Questions were raised about how a person might only need 12 credits and still be charged for 15. Mark Largent, MSU’s interim associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the changeover from per-credit hour to block tuition had the potential to be “disruptive” in a 2018 letter to the student community. He added that the university needed to implement the block model fast and efficiently to prevent that threat.

State funding for higher education post-Great Recession | Center on Budget and Policy Priorities chart

Largent also wrote that he considered the new tuition model to be an opportunity.

“Under the block tuition model, students are able to take classes outside their majors for little additional financial cost, which may help them develop new passions and purposes,” Largent wrote.

In October, Wayne State University also addressed college affordability with a program. The university announced it will offer free tuition to Detroit-graduated high school students who enroll for the fall 2020 semester and meet additional requirements. 

Free and low-cost tuition programs, like the one at Wayne State, have emerged as key points of higher education policy debates and the viability of implementing such programs. They’ve made a difference for many students feeling the weight of rising educational costs. 

Wayne State to offer free tuition for Detroit students, residents

For Carter Oslett, a first-generation college student attending Michigan State, college affordability is crucial.

Oslett is part of Rise, a student-led group that organizes on campuses and advocates for tuition-free colleges. He said there are a number of ways he has seen rising tuition affects students. It’s difficult for a minimum-wage job to cover tuition costs and many students struggle with additional expenses for rent, utilities and health care.

“We’re collecting stories for students and talking about what affordable college would mean to them,” Oslett said, adding that research and studies don’t always show the human factor to college affordability and tuition topics. 

Education advocates grapple with ‘disturbing’ higher ed budget

Oslett and the group are currently lobbying Michigan lawmakers to support two bills based on proposals from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: Michigan Reconnect, which would allow students 25 years and older to go back to school to complete a degree or certificate covered by the state, and the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, which would allow an individual with a household income of less than $85,000 to attend community college for free.

“We’re really trying to put a face to college affordability,” Oslett said. “A lot of the people in the Legislature went to school maybe 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. Since then, the cost of tuition has gone up extraordinarily.”