Jacques: Before 'free' college, fix the schools

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlined her wish list for Michigan during Tuesday’s State of the State address.

In addition to fixing the roads, her primary focus centered on fixing schools.

While she touched on the problems facing K-12 schools, the governor turned more to higher education and boosting college attainment and other post-high school certification. Whitmer’s most ambitious (and costly) school proposal is a plan to offer two years of “free” community college for all Michigan high school graduates — or allow them two years of tuition assistance at a four-year institution.

It’s becoming all too common for Democrats to tote promises of government giveaways, from education to health care.

Yet as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — a lifelong Democrat who is eyeing a presidential run as an independent — said in a recent NPR interview: “There is no free. Nothing is free.”

Republicans in the Michigan Legislature, who would need to approve Whitmer’s recommendations, have already raised concerns about how the state would cover the costs of the Democratic governor’s agenda.

Another worry for lawmakers — and taxpayers — is that if the state were to approve a free college plan before a comprehensive effort to overhaul K-12 public schools, much of that investment would be a waste.

Encouraging students to pursue higher education without the tools to succeed isn’t doing them any favors.

For example in Detroit, where the public schools are notoriously bad, students have had the opportunity for scholarships to attend community college at no charge. But a relatively small number of students have participated in the Detroit Regional Chamber-operated program, and as of 2016, only 35 percent returned for a second year. A big reason is that most students have to spend at least a year in remedial courses they should have mastered in high school.

Another concern is whether community colleges would have the capacity to take in an influx of new students. 

Whitmer pointed to challenges community colleges face. The fact-sheet related to her speech states that two-year graduation rates at community colleges are generally below 25 percent. So that means the state would need to fund additional counselors and “success coaches” who would work with students and help them complete their degree.

In addition, Whitmer laid out another tuition-free plan called Michigan Reconnect to train adults over 25 for in-demand careers though certification or an associate degree.

Both the student scholarships and the adult training programs are modeled after similar efforts in Tennessee, which had bipartisan support in that state. They’ve reportedly reaped positive results in Tennessee, boosting the percentage of students with degrees or certification. But Tennessee has also made significant strides in K-12 school reform, becoming a leading state for academic improvement. 

Whitmer wants to improve Michigan’s level of post-secondary attainment to 60 percent in 10 years. That’s a lofty goal, considering as of 2016, only about 44 percent of state residents had a degree or certificate after high school. That means Michigan lags the national average, as well as other Midwest states.

Although she didn’t mention Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to address the state’s skills gap, Whitmer would be smart to build off Snyder’s Marshall Plan for Talent, which launched last year with $100 million from the Legislature. Schools have already applied for grants, and the plan was meant to spur collaboration between schools, colleges and businesses to ensure students are ready to step in to the thousands of in-demand jobs currently available.

Whitmer is right to aim for better, but without an overhaul of elementary and secondary education in the state, it’s unlikely that pushing more students to enroll in college will reap the results she wants.