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Wayne State creates plan guaranteeing free tuition to half of its new students

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Wayne State University is expanding its financial aid with a program that will guarantee free tuition to half of its incoming students, a move making college more affordable to hundreds of students officials announced Monday.

The program, known as Wayne State Guarantee, would provide free tuition this fall to incoming Michigan students who come from families with annual incomes of $70,000, which is slightly above the state's $64,488 median household income in 2021. The university is financing the program, which will be available for students attending WSU for up to five years, but a specific cost was not given.

Last year, 46% of first-year Wayne State students paid no tuition as a result of the university's tuition assistance programs. The new program will push that figure to 50% as it works with students in tandem with the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, a $250 million state-funded scholarship hailed as the biggest state investment in financial aid in decades that will cover up to $5,500 in tuition every year for up to five years for many Michigan high school graduates.

Wayne State students pay $14,925 annually for tuition and fees, according to reports from the Michigan Association of State Universities.

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson trumpeted the new Wayne State Guarantee, offering tuition-free educations to eligible incoming students in a bid to broaden access to higher education.

The percentage of students who qualify for free tuition possibly could reach 60% of incoming students with this new program, WSU Provost Mark Kornbluh said after the announcement. That's an estimated 500 more students, WSU officials said.

“Wayne State is making a college degree more affordable than ever to Michigan families," said Kornbluh, who spoke during the announcement attended by hundreds of people in the WSU student center. "Opening this doorway of opportunity is at the core of university's mission."

Wayne State has been the state's top university for increasing the social mobility of students, which is the difference between the income of a student's family and how much they earn after they leave college and climb the economic ladder, President M. Roy Wilson said.

Wayne State plans to go further with its "bold goal" of becoming the nation's top research university for social mobility within the next decade, he added.

"In order to do that, you can just play around these edges," Wilson said. "You've got to do something equally bold."

In 2019, Wayne State introduced the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge for Detroit high school students to come to the university without out-of-pocket expenses, he said.

"Now all Michiganders throughout the state will be able to come to Wayne State without out of pocket expenses," Wilson said. "In other words, free.”

Whitmer urges more guarantees

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer encouraged all state universities to create programs like the Wayne State Guarantee.

"There are so many hard-working Michiganders out there who want to go to school but either can't or chose not to because of the prohibitive cost," Whitmer said. "I'm proud that we are all focused on lowering the cost of higher education. It doesn't happen if one of us does this work. It only happens if we all are focused on this and working together."

The second-term governor highlighted the state’s new Michigan Achievement Scholarship, a bipartisan initiative that she said is another step toward getting thousands more students an education with lower tuition and trying to reach the state’s goal of increasing the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 50.5% today to 60% by 2030.

"Four out of five students graduating in 2023 will get help for college," Whitmer said of the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. "A lot of that will be no cost. The scholarship lowers the cost of college whether it is at a community college or a private university or a public university by thousands of dollars. ... The scholarship will build on programs like the Wayne State Guarantee."

Last week, Northern Michigan University announced a similar program to offer free tuition to students, known as the NMU Tuition Advantage, said NMU spokesman Derek Hall. Eastern Michigan has offered a free tuition plan for students for more than a decade and has been among the first in Michigan to offer such a program that is known as Eastern Tuition Advantage, said EMU spokeswoman Melissa Thrasher.

From left, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel share a laugh before the Detroit-based university announced the creation of its tuition-free education for eligible students starting in the fall.

Among the students who plan to take advantage of the Wayne State Guarantee is Dearborn Heights resident Zianab Wehbi, a senior at Crestwood High School who has been admitted to Wayne State for fall semester. She said she felt a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders when she heard about the program because her dad has worked his entire life for her and the rest of her family.

"It's an amazing feeling to be able to go to my dad and say, 'Hi Pappa. I don't have to pay for college,'" said Wehbi, who drew laughts as she spoke before the crowd. "It's sort of in a way repays my dad for all that he has done for us."

The WSU program is similar to the University of Michigan's Go Blue Guarantee, a scholarship program providing free tuition to students from families with incomes less than $65,000 and assets below $50,000.

But Kornluh said WSU's program is more comprehensive since the Detroit-based university admits more students, who have at least a 3.0 grade point average or better, than UM, which is more selective in admissions, and the threshold for family income is higher.

How WSU guarantee works

About 24,000 students attend Wayne State and pay $14,925 annually for tuition and fees, according to reports from the Michigan Association of State Universities. WSU officials said the university provides students with nearly $350 million in financial aid annually and is the lowest tuition of the state's research universities, which includes UM and Michigan State University.

The program will be available for incoming students who received the Pell Grant, federal financial aid that is based on financial need. The $70,000 income threshold for the Wayne State program will also require that families have $50,000 or less in assets, which does include a home.

First-year students, who numbered 2,577 at WSU in 2022, will be automatically considered for this award when they are admitted to Wayne State and submit a FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The Wayne State Guarantee will be paid with general financial aid funds, but it’s too early to tell how much it will cost each year, said MSU spokesman Matt Lockwood. It will be determined by how many students enroll in the program and their financial need after their costs are covered by federal, state and other WSU aid, he said.

For those who qualify for Wayne State institutional aid through the guarantee, so far the average amount has been about $3,000 annually, Lockwood said.

State Rep. Samantha Steckloff, D-Farmington Hills, said Monday "An education at Wayne State is a fulfilment for the future."

Also attending the announcement was Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who said Whitmer has been known for vowing to fix the roads, but she has also "been absolutely tenacious about opening opportunities for post secondary education."

Rep. Samantha Steckloff, D-Farmington Hills, said a similar program hasn't been announced like this since the Kalamazoo Promise, which was designed to get more people to move to Kalamazoo and graduate from a city high school with the offer of free college for students.

"An education at Wayne State is a fulfilment for the future," Steckloff said.