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The University of Michigan’s new free tuition program for lower-income students is already a success: It has diverted the conversation from yet another tuition hike in Ann Arbor.

UM managed to move all the focus onto a program that will waive tuition for students from families with incomes less than $65,000 a year. It amounts to economic affirmative action, and certainly attention needs to be paid to assuring that talented students from all income levels have a chance at a quality education.

It would be a marvelous program — if it were being paid for by tapping the school’s endowment, or with a separate philanthropic drive, or by slashing spending elsewhere.

But instead it will be financed with another tuition hike — 2.9 percent for undergraduates and 4.5 percent for out-of-state scholars.

There are a few problems with that approach.

First, tuition increases at UM have been relentless, as they have at most other state universities. As a result, nearly half of UM students graduate with student debt averaging roughly $30,000. That’s a heavy burden.

And while a UM education will be more affordable to students below the income threshold, middle-class students will find the state’s premier public university further from their reach.

While Pell grants and other assistance are available to lower income students, there is less help for those from middle class families, who are the most reliant on student loans to pay for college. UM is setting itself up as a school accessible to the poor and rich, but not so much by the middle.

That’s one of many reasons Republican Regent Andrea Newman cast the lone dissenting vote against the tuition hike.

“There are going to be many families, particularly middle-class families, who will be priced out of the opportunity for the world-class education available at the University of Michigan,” Newman says.

The university says it will help pay for the free tuition program with “aggressive cost-cutting.” But what passes as aggressive cost controls on campus wouldn’t register in most other places, where unchecked spending can’t simply be passed on to customers.

“There are two sides of the ledger, and this budget focuses far too much on the revenue side,” Newman says. “Until we can take measures to address the spending side as well, I am voting no.”

Thank goodness for her example, even if it was ignored by the other seven board members.

When universities want some new shiny thing, they nearly always default to raising tuition instead of looking for other programs they could trim or kill.

They can do that, particularly in Ann Arbor, because there remains a high demand for their product. Students are still willing to drown themselves in debt to get a UM degree.

And no comfort should be taken in the fact that out-of-state students will bear a higher tuition increase. That simply raises the incentive for UM to enroll more students from outside the state. Non-Michigan students already make up nearly half the campus population.

The university would serve all of its students better by attacking spending and committing to holding tuition firm until household incomes begin catching up with the cost of college.

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