Lake Superior State offers in-state tuition for all

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

One of Kelly Mildebrandt’s best outdoor trips was in northern Wisconsin, kayaking through caves along Lake Superior. That’s why she was intrigued when Lake Superior State University sent her promotional materials — with a kayak on the cover.

For Mildebrandt, attending the school in Sault Ste. Marie seemed like a fantasy, since she lives in Milwaukee and would have to pay more expensive out-of-state tuition.

But Mildebrandt has applied to LSSU since it is now offering one tuition rate to all students — making Lake State the nation’s first public university to offer in-state tuition to students throughout North America.

“I was looking at the tuition, and was considering a school in Wisconsin, which was a more cost-friendly option,” Mildebrandt said. “Now the playing field is leveled.”

LSSU hopes its “One Rate at Lake State” campaign will lure more students to the state’s smallest public university and promote economic development in the Upper Peninsula.

Under the plan, out-of-state students’ tuition would be cut by 33 percent — from about $15,000 for two semesters to $10,000 — and the region would gain $45,000 in economic impact for each new student, officials say.

Best known for its annual List of Words Banished, Lake State started marketing its new rate last month in partnership with Pure Michigan tourism officials, initially targeting Wisconsin residents through billboards and newspaper ads.

The university is taking other steps to boost declining enrollment, which has dipped to about 2,300 students. Last week, LSSU signed an agreement with the University of Wisconsin Colleges, making it easier for about 14,000 prospective students at the 13 two-year liberal arts campuses to transfer all their credits to Lake State and earn a baccalaureate degree.

“If we want to grow and attract talent, we need to bring people here from elsewhere,” said LSSU President Tom Pleger, who served five different University of Wisconsin campuses before joining Lake State last year. “This is our first step to bring talent to the Upper Peninsula, and keeping them here in the region.”

University officials say they are seeing an uptick in interest from prospective students in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana since announcing the new tuition policy late last year.

“A lot of kids don’t have the extra money to go to college out of state,” said Rachael Turffs, 18, of Dixon, Ill., who plans to attend Lake State because of its criminal justice program and the new tuition policy. “A lot of them get stuck here in Illinois. I am lucky that I am able to go out of state and still be able to afford it.”

Lake State is on a small, remote campus on the tip of the northeastern end of the Upper Peninsula, about a six-hour drive from Detroit. Sault Ste. Marie has a population of about 14,000 — a fraction of Detroit’s 668,000 residents.

Some might pause at the climate: the average high in January is 22 degrees (in Detroit, it’s 32) and the average annual snowfall is 120 inches — three times more than Detroit’s 41 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Gaylord.

Students are active in organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the Fisheries and Wildlife club. LSSU also recently opened a Regional Outdoor Center — a place where students can rent snowshoes, kayaks and fat tire bicycles for free or at low rates.

Enrollment slipping

With a $38.2 million budget, Lake State touts academic programs such as fire science, fisheries wildlife management, nursing and an engineering bachelor’s degree, with a concentration in robotics and automation — a degree typically offered at university graduate level.

But like some other universities, LSSU has lost students recently. More than 20 years ago, enrollment topped 3,000 students, but it fell to 2,262 students in fall 2014. Most students are from Michigan, but about 10 percent hail from nearby Ontario. Only about 5 percent of students come to LSSU from out of state.

Meanwhile, state funding to public universities still trails 2002 levels, when 10 years of funding cuts began, and the Legislature has capped tuition increases for four years to get incentive funding.

All of these factors prompted LSSU officials to offer in-state tuition for all, and they’re hoping to see a payoff as soon as this fall.

“Applications are down right now compared with 2014, as they are at three other state universities, but admissions are up,” said Allan Case, LSSU admissions director. “We’re up in inquiries, and the one rate has the most potential for us next fall and beyond.”

Bold strategy

Other Michigan universities have tried to attract out-of-state students with tuition incentives, but none has gone as far as LSSU.

Wayne State University last year began offering a lower tuition rate to students from the Great Lakes states and Ontario, and Eastern Michigan University offers in-state tuition to Ohio residents.

Several other universities, including the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University, offer in-state tuition with some restrictions to undocumented students, active duty military personnel and armed forces veterans.

Ultimately, Lake State hopes to boost its enrollment to 3,000. A recent LSSU study found the school is responsible for nearly 10 percent of all the jobs in Chippewa County, the university’s home, for a total economic impact of $113 million a year.

Lake State’s strategy is bold, and unlike anything across the nation, said Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“It is fitting for an institution like Lake Superior State ... it is geographically remote, economically challenged and on the border with Canada,” said Hurley, who will become the executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan later this year.

Lake State’s first big push for students is in Wisconsin.

Three billboards with the Pure Michigan logo have been erected on Highway 41. They will stay up through summer since Lake State has rolling admissions, meaning students can apply at any time.

“Come for a visit. Stay for an education,” say the signs, created in partnership with the Sault Convention and Tourism Bureau. Ads also have been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and USA Today’s Hunt & Fish magazine.

“Lake State is being really innovative in attracting new students and touting our competitive Michigan programs,” said state Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, who recently heard Pleger testify before a legislative subcommittee.

Evan Gist, a 21-year-old Detroit native, is studying geology at Lake State. He’s impresssed with the new one rate, because it will benefit the university and future out-of-state students.

“It helps the university move from the shadows of more famous neighbors with better brand recognition,” Gist said. “And at a time where college costs are at such a high ... it no longer acts as a deterrent to prospective students who would like to attend but feel it is out of their price range.”

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