UM offers free tuition for families who make up to $65K

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — In a move aimed at increasing low-income students’ ability to attend the University of Michigan, President Mark Schlissel announced a financial aid program Thursday that will make tuition free for resident undergraduate students whose families earn $65,000 a year or less.

More than half of families in Michigan would qualify for the program, known as the Go Blue Guarantee, which will provide free tuition for four years, a value of $60,000, beginning in January.

It will be available for incoming undergraduate students, as well as those undergraduates currently enrolled at the Ann Arbor campus. Those attending UM’s Dearborn or Flint campuses will not be eligible.

“I’ve heard from far too many families throughout our state who don’t pursue a UM education because they feel they can’t afford it,” Schlissel said during Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting.

“We now guarantee those with the most need can afford a University of Michigan education.”

Regent Denise Ilitch — whose family championed the buy one pizza, get one free promotion at Little Caesars Pizza in Detroit — added she knows the power of the word “free” and hopes the tuition program will break through to students who never thought they could afford a UM education.

“This will change lives forever,” Ilitch said.

The Go Blue Guarantee also will be available for an estimated 3,000 in-state students already at UM in the upcoming spring semester, and there will be no cap on the number of students who qualify in the future.

Students’ families also will have to have $50,000 or less in assets, said Kedra Ishop, UM’s vice provost for enrollment management.

According to U.S. Census data, Michigan’s median income for a family of three was $63,995 and $77,865 for a family of four in 2015.

The program comes as UM has been working to diversify its student body, not just to add more students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds but also in areas such as economic diversity.

“Our goal is to look hard across the full socioeconomic spectrum across the state,” Schlissel said, “and make sure the talented students who are willing to work hard and families who value education can tell their kids, ‘You can come to Michigan too,’ regardless of whether they come from a wealthy background, or a less-wealthy background.”

The financial aid program is part of the university’s $2.05 billion general fund budget for 2017-18, which includes a 2.9 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduate students. The new rate will increase costs for resident undergraduates to $14,826 annually, up from $14,402.

Room and board rates also will increase to $11,198 for a double occupancy in residential halls, up from $10,872. That means a resident undergraduate student who lives on campus with a roommate will pay $26,024 next year, minus any financial aid.

Schlissel said the Go Blue Guarantee program would increase the financial budget by $12 million to $16 million.

Meanwhile, tuition costs for nonresident students will increase 4.5 percent to $47,476, up from $45,410 this year.

Regents approved the budget 7-1, with Regent Andrea Fischer Newman voting no.

While she lauded the Go Blue Guarantee, she said there will still be middle-class students who will be priced out of a UM education.

“This spending plan still includes a significant increase in the tuition burden,” Newman said.

But Regent Mark Bernstein called the budget a moral compass, reflecting the university’s hopes, dreams and aspirations.

“This is a transformative moment in the history of the University of Michigan,” Bernstein said. “Our state and our nation is watching us, and I could not be more proud.”

Few public universities of UM’s stature have such a program — the University of North Carolina offers a covenant that offers loan-free financial aid to students who meet income guidelines.

Eastern Michigan University’s Education First Opportunity Scholarship provides free tuition to in-state students who have academic merit (at least a 3.0 GPA and a 20 on the ACT) and are Pell Grant-eligible, a program initiated in fall 2012. In 2016, 1,322 EMU undergraduates received the scholarship, according to EMU spokesman Walter Kraft.

That’s why some outside of the UM community hailed the Ann Arbor school’s move.

“A quality post-secondary degree is the surest path to a healthier, more prosperous future for low-income Americans,” said William Moses, managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program.

“Right now, the University of Michigan costs nearly $30,000 per year for an undergraduate. Families making under $65,000 can’t imagine paying almost half of their income annually to send a child to college,” he said. “This step puts a Michigan degree within reach for many low- and moderate-income families in our state.”

The Go Blue Guarantee comes after the university has been slowly increasing financial aid to students for years, Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs said.

“The difference here is that we are really at the point to do the commitment so that families find it very easy to understand that we are committed to free tuition for $65,000-income families,” Diggs said. “We are committed to in-state students and this is part of that commitment.”