Blog Post | September 11, 2020

Tuition-Free Community College is in Reach for Michigan

Author: Catherine Brown

Yesterday, Governor Whitmer announced the launch of the Futures for Frontliners program. This first in the nation initiative guarantees that tuition and fees at community college will be fully covered for those brave individuals who served our state in essential roles during the pandemic. From grocery store cashiers to garbage collectors, essential workers stepped up to keep our state functioning during this crisis. Not only does this program say thank you for your service, it also sends a powerful message to everyone who is eligible that college is an option and that there are resources available to help you pursue your dreams.

Futures for Frontliners builds on a strong foundation that Michigan has put in place to make community college more accessible for all low-income residents. And with a few improvements, Michigan could become a nationwide leader for making community college affordable and accessible for everyone in need.

The Tuition Incentive Program, or TIP, is the cornerstone of this investment. TIP provides full community college tuition and fees for all low-income residents, defined as those who qualified for Medicaid for two years between ages nine and high school graduation. Students can use a TIP grant at any associates program in the state. If students transfer to a four-year school upon completion, TIP provides an additional award of $500 per semester.

However, right now, TIP is only reaching about half of eligible individuals each year. Why is that? The program’s arcane application process limits the number of students that benefit. Under current law and regulation, eligible students must complete a short application by August 31st after their senior year in high school. If they miss the date, inadvertently fill it out wrong, or never learn about their eligibility in the first place, they lose access to this aid for life.

This process stands in stark contrast to financial aid processes for students attending four-year colleges. Eligibility for the Michigan Competitive Scholarship and the Michigan Tuition Grant, the two largest state grant programs for four-year institutions, as well as all federal aid, is triggered by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA. Students may complete that form and unlock thousands of dollars in scholarship aid at any time – from age 17 to age 97.

The current TIP application process is completely unnecessary. The list of students who are eligible for TIP is generated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and provided to the state Treasury Department. The Treasury Department then feeds this information into a statewide portal, which is available to financial aid counselors at colleges throughout the state. Yet, Treasury officials and college counselors still jump through hoops to get students to confirm what they already know: these students are eligible to receive free tuition at community college.

Not only does this process place a disproportionate burden on the lowest income students in the college population – often first generation students who are the least knowledgeable about the college process – it also wastes taxpayer money that would be better spent breaking down barriers to college enrollment and completion. And in a state where less than half of adults have attained a postsecondary degree or credential and 75 percent of jobs will soon require a degree beyond high school, it is holding back our economy.

Policymakers can act now to change this situation by simply aligning TIP with other state aid. By eliminating the separate application, allowing students to access the aid whenever they are ready to attend college, and increasing the program’s duration to 10 years from the current limit of 6, they will put community college within reach for most needy students throughout the state.

Of course, TIP is not the only building block in the foundation of free community college. The state’s Promise programs, specifically the Detroit and Kalamazoo Promise programs, also provide generous college benefits for students living in certain cities. The recently enacted – but not yet funded – Reconnect program provides vital tuition support for older adults. And Governor Whitmer’s proposal to create an Opportunity Scholarship would also cover the remaining cost of tuition and mandatory fees for all students going to community college, if it becomes law.

Michigan has a patchwork of college aid programs, but it can be stitched together to provide tuition free community college for low-income students.  At a time when COVID is threatening college enrollment for low-income students, the time to act is now.