West Michigan lawmakers react to Gov. Whitmer’s debt-free college proposal

Posted at 9:00 PM, Feb 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-17 22:25:48-05

LANSING, Mich.-- During her first State of the State address, Governor Gretchen Whitmer outlined what could be her most ambitious plan yet: debt-free college.

Governor Whitmer's "MI Opportunity Scholarship" program would make Michigan the first state in the Midwest to guarantee community college for all.

Other states like Georgia, Arkansas, Orgegon and over a dozen others already offer tuition assistance to high school graduates statewide.

“Real Paths. Real Opportunity. Together, these paths will go a long way toward closing the skills gap, making Michigan’s economy more competitive, and creating real opportunity for everyone in this state," Governor Whitmer said during her address Tuesday night.

In her address, Whitmer outlined her three plans to improve access to higher education and job training. The first of which Whitmer is calling "Michigan Reconnect," an initiative modeled after one in Tennessee meant to help Michiganders gain skills for jobs that employers currently need to fill.

The governor's two other initiatives fall under the "MI Opportunity Scholarship" plan. It would guarantee two years of debt-free community college for high school graduates who qualify. It would also offer two years of tuition assistance at non-profit, four-year schools for high schoolers who graduate in Michigan with at least a 3.0 grade point average.

State House Democratic Leader, Christine Greig, weighed in on the ambitious proposal shortly after Whitmer's address.

“As she said, high expectations will lead to great results, so I think it’s very realistic if we have the will to do it," Greig tells FOX 17. "So we have to be really smart about it and we have to be very focused on making sure the kids have those opportunities.”

State Representative Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, acknowledges the challenges of convincing Republicans to get on board with such a large government program.

“I’m sure that in these first couple of years, that we will have to make some deals to make this happen but investments in people pay off," Hood tells FOX 17.

Minutes after Whitmer's speech, her Republican counterparts were quick to share their skepticism.

“Don’t want to get caught in the weeds of the dollars and cents but you know the hard-working men and women of Michigan send those hard-earned tax dollars here and, to us and I was kind of lacking to hear how do we fund this program?” says Senator Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville.

Hood says she's eager to question those who oppose the scholarship program.

"What other ideas do they have to make sure that we’re prepared for a 21st century economy and that we’re competitive?” Hood says.

A similar program in Rhode Island has doubled the enrollment rate of new high school graduates at one community college.

Washington-based think tank The Education Trust cautions that without careful structure, many free college programs can fail low-income students because they don't always cover all the costs of attending college, like living expenses.

“A study last year found the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year school in Michigan is almost $22,000 a year," Whitmer said in her address. "That’s the 10th highest in the country. And it’s a complete barrier for a lot of people in our state.”

Existing local tuition assistance programs like Muskegon Promise and Kalamazoo Promise already guarantee local students free tuition to local schools if they meet certain requirements. Muskegon's is funded in part with property taxes, so State Representative Greg VanWoerkom, R-Muskegon, is concerned about how MI Opportunity Scholarships would work statewide.

“They’re great programs. We’ve seen great benefits in Muskegon," VanWoerkom tells FOX 17. "It’ll be difficult, well not difficult but will be interesting to see how she’s going to replicate that for all children to go to community college for free for two years.”

Whitmer says MI Opportunity Scholarships will be implemented in the spring and available to students for fall of 2020.

The details of how these higher education programs will be funded are yet to be announced. The governor is expected to release her first budget proposal on March 5.