“Poor kids are just as bright … as white kids.”

When Joe Biden made this gaffe on Aug. 9, 2019, in response to a question about his education policy, I felt my skin crawl. While I think this was a genuine mistake in word choice, Biden’s comment had real resonance because it reflects an America where your race and socioeconomic status are inextricably linked. 

Since schools are largely funded through property taxes, many majority-minority urban areas, especially Black and Hispanic ones, tend to have lower-quality schools and more financial hardship, which decreases their likelihood to obtain a postsecondary degree. This is a major reason why 54% of associate’s degrees and 63% of bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2018 belong to white graduates, while 36% of associate’s degrees and 25% of bachelor’s degrees belong to Hispanic and Black graduates combined. 

However, attainment disparities do not only fall on racial lines. Regional factors, especially the rural-urban divide, exacerbate the opportunity gap. As of 2015, 16.7% of rural families lived in poverty and therefore experience increased hardship in attending college. Thus Michigan, a state with significant proportions of urban Black communities (13.4%) and rural white communities (24.1%), has many institutional barriers for its citizens to attend college, contributing to only 44% of Michiganders between ages 16 and 64 having a postsecondary degree or equivalent certificate as of 2016.

Enter Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In her State of the State address on Feb. 12, 2019, she announced the MI Opportunity Initiative, which seeks to increase the percentage of Michiganders with a postsecondary degree to 60% by 2030. One of the main methods of her three-pronged approach is the MI Opportunity Scholarship, which guarantees every Michigan graduating high schooler two years of free tuition at any community college in the state, regardless of means. It also provides a two-year scholarship of $2,500 per year to any public or private non-profit four-year university in Michigan, provided that the student averaged at least a 3.0-grade point average and is from a household making less than $80,000 per year. 

This policy is modeled off of the Oregon Promise and Tennessee Promise scholarship programs, which both guarantee free community college to graduating high schoolers, and their success signals that the MI Opportunity Scholarship could have similar success in increasing enrollment at community colleges. According to Gov. Whitmer, the target population is Michigan adults as a whole, so the scholarship will likely serve that population well since the Oregon Promise increased across-the-board enrollment between 4% and 5% at community colleges. 

Similarly, the Tennessee Promise increased enrollment 4% in its first year and sustained that rate in the following year. Additionally, the Tennessee Promise shows an increase, albeit small, in enrollment for minorities. While they are not the stated targets of this scholarship program, increasing the attendance of minority and rural students should be of paramount importance to lawmakers, and these programs alone do not seem to accomplish this goal to a large extent.

Economically, the MI Opportunity Scholarship will cost $80 million to $100 million, but the upfront cost will be offset by the future economic benefits of having more educated professionals in the state. These professionals will be paying more taxes because they make larger sums of money and they will stimulate the economy because of more entrepreneurship, disposable income and community involvement. This benefit may be deferred, but it ultimately mitigates the upfront costs. 

The most salient argument against this policy is that political support is going to be difficult to gather in the state legislature, especially when Democrats control every statewide elected office while the Republicans control both houses of the legislature. This legislature has already made life exceedingly difficult for Whitmer’s administration, having blocked her environmental executive order and bringing the state to the brink of a government shutdown in her first year in office. 

This partisan environment is not particularly conducive to deal-cutting, but this bill could garner bipartisan support in the near future, taking inspiration from the Tennessee Promise program, which was passed by a Republican legislature with bipartisan support and signed by a Republican governor. If Gov. Whitmer and the Democrats make this a chief legislative priority, they could likely bring Republicans along, because everyone should be able to agree on educating our state’s children. It is just a question of expending political capital to pass the policy.

Now, while I recognize that the MI Opportunity Scholarship has perils, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction toward mitigating harmful impacts of economic inequality and increasing educational achievement across the board. 

If this law passes, Michiganders will see the positive effects in the foreseeable future, which will make it easier to pass legislation further expanding funding for community colleges and incentivizing achievement in four-year programs. These laws can finally help Michigan close the opportunity gap, because all kids really do deserve just as much of a chance as the white kids.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu.

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