Column: Students deserve higher ed options

Richard Pappas

More Americans are obtaining college degrees than ever before — just over one-third of Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. This increase in students parallels an increase in demand from employers and businesses for skilled workers. As more people graduate, more highly qualified, educated people are able to enter the workforce.

This increased demand has created unique challenges for parents, students, and those of us in the higher education community. Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities (MICU) member institutions are tackling these challenges head on with programming, student supports, and financial resources that help Michigan students succeed and become part of Michigan’s highly educated workforce.

This week is Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities Week. MICU believes every person deserves the opportunity to further his or her education. Michigan is home to more than 25 independent, nonprofit colleges and universities that are committed to keeping opportunities alive for all students, regardless of age, income or socioeconomic status.

Right now, 15 percent of all Michigan college students attend an independent college or university. And Michigan’s independent institutions are diverse. Many of these students are veterans. Thirty-nine percent of veterans pursuing a bachelor’s degree choose independent colleges. Six in 10 are women, and 3 in 10 students are minorities. MICU institutions awarded 20,293 diplomas in 2015, approximately one quarter of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in Michigan.

Our student-centered approach to education with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14 to one provides personalized attention and assistance that other institutions cannot, both in and out of the classroom. This is especially important for students who come from lower income families or who may lack a strong support system at home. Students at MICU member institutions also experience a more inclusive learning environment. Veterans who choose Michigan’s independent colleges and universities thrive because of their high-touch, supportive atmosphere.

MICU institutions also provide financial aid. We understand access to financial aid is a major factor influencing a student’s choice of where to pursue higher education, especially with the high price tag that comes with college today, and we do all we can to help ensure affordability. Our MICU institutions currently provide $984 million in funds and discounts for students who need financial assistance and in total, and more than 80 percent of students receive some form of financial aid. Having that support enables almost a third of these graduates to leave school without student loans, and those that have loans are not overburdened with debt. From 2005 to 2015, the amount of scholarships and grants provided directly by institutions increased by over $246 million — a 99 percent increase in 10 years.

Given our high financial investment and our ability to provide a nurturing learning environment to our students, we know MICU member institutions and their students are a remarkable investment. Historically, the people of Michigan have supported our students in need through the Michigan Tuition Grant (MTG). For many of our students, this life-changing grant has made a tremendous difference in their ability to access the education of their dreams making a successful career possible. The MTG also pays off where Michigan’s economy is concerned. By fostering the preparation of skilled, educated talent, the state helps develop a stronger talent pool capable of supporting the jobs of tomorrow.

Each year, MICU strongly urges legislators to continue the state’s MTG investment. It works. While some years have been more challenging from a state budget perspective, our leaders have never failed to provide the opportunities our students need. We hope this year will be no different, particularly given the economic progress our state has made.

Michigan’s independent colleges and universities are shaping the future of our state and its workforce. We look forward to continued opportunities to transform students’ lives and build on our strong track record of success, in partnership with our friends in the Legislature.

Dr. Richard Pappas is the chair of the executive committee of MICU.