Opinion: Free college won't make Michigan kids career ready

Kristiana Bolzman

This month, Michigan lawmakers convene with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to chart Michigan’s higher education future. As they review the governor’s first-ever budget, lawmakers are considering Whitmer’s plan to offer low- and middle-income students a free-ride to community college.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Opportunity Scholarship would offer two years of debt-free community college for state high school graduates, Bolzman says.

Yet far from helping students succeed, Whitmer’s “free college” ploy would instead incentivize underprepared young people to take on a painful higher education experience many will abandon. A better approach would focus on providing kids with alternative paths to career success.

Whitmer’s Michigan Opportunity Scholarship would offer two years of debt-free community college for state high school graduates. The plan would also offer two years of tuition assistance for those entering a four-year non-profit college or university. The governor says her goal is to increase the number of Michiganians ages 16 to 64 with a degree or certificate earned through higher education to 60% by 2030.

As enticing as this goal may be, offering free college won’t achieve it.

Education leaders must account for the reality that in Michigan and across the United States, students are woefully underprepared for college.

According to SAT scores, which are good predictors of 1st-year college GPA, only 35% of Michigan public school students in the class of 2018 tested as “fully college ready.” National student performance is little better — only 46% of 2017 test-takers meet college readiness benchmarks in math and reading.

Though these SAT scores suggest that the vast majority of students are unprepared for college, most continue to enroll. In Michigan, 60% of students enrolled in higher education, and nationwide 66% of students enrolled.

With so few students prepared for college, and so many enrolling, it should be no surprise that many students never manage to complete their coursework.

In Michigan for example, 1 in 4 adults have completed some college coursework, but have no degree. For many, the class material is just too hard.

The preparation barrier many face when entering higher education wouldn’t be helped by Whitmer’s plan. In fact, it might make it worse. Underprepared students who would otherwise have sought alternatives to higher education will attempt to take advantage of the reduced costs for school.

There’s a better approach to career readiness: Michigan should establish low-income Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs direct a portion of public funds to a state-controlled account, which parents can access for state-approved, education-related expenses.

For parents of students looking to attend college, the account would provide a means of accessing high-quality schools, tutoring, or college tuition. And for parents of students who prefer an alternative to higher education, the account could be used to cover training and apprenticeship or internship programs.

ESA programs in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee are already helping parents access educational opportunities that prepare their children for success, while saving more to cover the future costs of higher education.

Arizona dad Marc Ashton, for example, used an ESA to help his blind son Max attend the best high school in Arizona and then go on to attend college:

“Max is going to be able to go on to Loyola Marymount University, one of the greatest colleges in the country, and do extremely well,” Ashton said in an interview with the Heritage Foundation, “because we were able to save money, even sending him to the best school in Arizona, all for what the state would normally pay for it.”

But these kind of success stories aren’t happening in Michigan, because unlike in surrounding states, the state constitution prohibits public dollars from being spent on private schools—even when those schools better prepare students for their futures.

To truly transform career-readiness in Michigan, lawmakers must introduce a constitutional amendment allowing programs like ESAs to direct public dollars where they will make the most impact on students’ lives.

Kristiana Bolzman is a catalyst policy fellow with the Independent Institute and a contributor for Young Voices