Eli Atkinson, a recent high school graduate from Ann Arbor, planned to go to college until COVID struck. A swimmer and swim instructor who valued the social skills he was able to develop through in-person learning, Eli spent his senior year in isolation. A year of online learning with little chance for social interaction, an illness, the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, no opportunities to visit colleges, and high tuition rates led to burnout and a change of plans. Instead of heading to college, Eli made the hard decision to take a gap year, work, and save for college.
Unfortunately, Eli is not alone. Michigan’s undergraduate enrollment fell by 8% overall, double the national rate between fall 2019 and fall 2020. Michigan’s community colleges, which disproportionately enroll historically underrepresented students, saw their enrollment fall by over 20% while enrollment at public and private non-profit four-year institutions declined by 4% and 8%, respectively. Students who have not continued their education are at higher risk of never enrolling and completing their college degree.
Luckily, Michigan has the means to address this pressing problem. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided the state with $5.6 billion in relief aid to spend on stemming the negative impacts of the pandemic. The state should help students like Eli get back on track by using a portion of the pandemic relief dollars available under ARP to create a one-time scholarship for students impacted by COVID.
A first-dollar grant for students in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 graduating high school classes could offer full-time students $5,000 a year for up to four years at a four-year institution and $2,500 a year for up to two years at a two-year institution.
The ARP, enacted in 2021, presents a momentous opportunity for states to create short-term relief programs that drive healthy, long-term economic recovery. Because funds must be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026, some states are using them to make college more affordable for low to moderate income families most impacted by the COVID health pandemic.
North Carolina, for example, is considering investing $350 million of the state’s ARP funds in the NC Guarantee Scholarship. The scholarship would provide at least $6,000 per year to students from families who earn $60,000 per year or less at any UNC institution or NC community college. Students attending private institutions would be eligible for smaller awards through the program.
South Carolina is using $124 million of its ARP dollars to extend an existing scholarship program to address the state’s current labor shortage. The scholarship will cover the cost of tuition and required fees at any technical college in the state. All South Carolinians who have graduated from high school are eligible and recipients must maintain a 2.0 GPA as well as complete either 100 volunteer hours, be employed, or take a financial literacy course.
So far, Michigan has been taking its time to spend its relief money. While ensuring that each dollar of federal funding is spent wisely is critical for Michigan’s future, the state’s students are facing a higher education crisis that demands swift action. Increasing educational attainment is imperative for Michigan to grow average statewide family income, lower dependence on social services, and attain the greater economic growth that research shows accompanies a higher concentration of residents with a college degree.
Michigan cannot afford to continue on its current trajectory and must capitalize on the opportunity to use the available ARP funds to make college more affordable. To stem the enrollment decline and incentivize students like Eli to enroll, persist, and complete postsecondary education, the state should create a short-term scholarship for those students whose postsecondary dreams were most impacted by COVID. This generous, simple, and short-term award could put college within reach for thousands of students and bolster the state’s long-term economic health.