Editorial: EMU promises free tuition; can it deliver?

The Detroit News
Graduates look around for their family members in the audience at the start of Eastern Michigan University's spring commencement at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti on Saturday, April 21, 2018. (John T. Greilick, The Detroit News)

Free college for all has become the rallying cry of democratic socialists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Michigan is looking to get on the bandwagon, and some programs hold more promise than others.

A new initiative from Eastern Michigan University pledges two years of free tuition to students who meet certain academic requirements and agree to the plan’s parameters — without hiking tuition or finding a new funding stream.

This follows a University of Michigan initiative earlier this year to waive tuition for students from families with incomes of less than $65,000 a year. And while that sounds great for those students, the university is paying for it by hiking tuition on other students. Similarly, New York University this month said it will offer free tuition at its medical school — but that program will be covered through outside donations.

EMU's program — the 4WARD Graduation Scholarship — offers students the final two years of their tuition for free when they pay for the first two years. The scholarship offers families defined costs up front, taking some of the financial gamble out of the college investment.

Students would pay for the first two years of tuition at a set rate of about $13,000 a year for 30 credits. While the university will pay for the final two years of tuition, the student must agree to live on campus and cover room and board — approximately $10,500 a year, including a meal plan.

EMU was planning to start the program in fall 2019, but because of interest from incoming students, the university will open it up to freshmen this fall. Walter Kraft, EMU spokesman, says the university has alerted 9,000 admitted students of the opportunity.

“What families are intrigued by is price certainty,” he says. “They know exactly what they’ll pay for.”

The 15 public universities in Michigan get roughly 20 percent of their funding from taxpayers. The rest largely comes in from tuition.

With most colleges complaining of too little funding, how can Eastern give away two years of college for free?

EMU believes the two years of free tuition will pay off for itself in several ways. First, it hopes to attract more students to its campus. And it aims to keep more students enrolled through graduation. Right now, EMU has one of the lower freshman retention rates in the state at 72 percent.

Students who live on campus are more likely to do better in school and complete their degree, Kraft says, so that’s why administrators included that requirement. Plus, the school benefits from room and board revenue.

EMU’s offer is unique in the country, says Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. And he thinks other institutions will be closely watching whether the scholarship delivers higher graduation rates without breaking the bank.

State lawmakers and taxpayers should pay attention, too.

Soaring tuition costs are pricing many middle class families out of four-year universities. Colleges must find innovative solutions to help them over the price hurdle.