Feasibility of higher education reform plans questioned by Michigan officials

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 5:24pm

This article is the first in a series examining candidates' higher education reform plans.

Higher education reform has been a big topic this election season — particularly for Democrats. As opponents in the Democratic primary, now-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–VT) lauded their two separate proposals of debt-free and tuition-free college, respectively. As the nominee, Clinton has released a combination of the two plans as part of her platform.

Several states already offer free college plans at certain institutions similar to some of the proposed reforms, including Maryland, New York, Colorado, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Kentucky. However, no such plans have come into fruition in the state of Michigan.

As the current system stands, students receive support for college from the federal government in two ways — loans or grants. States provide varying levels of support both to individuals and funding to institutions, which has mostly decreased in the past decade. Among the proposed higher education reforms, the overarching plans come from the national level, but state support would still be required, particularly from the governor’s office, if they were to be fully implemented.

In Michigan, it is unclear how gubernatorial support would play out if reforms like these were to be implemented. In 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder cut state funding for higher education by 15 percent, on trend with decreasing support for higher education during several years prior, and has increased it incrementally since. Snyder’s office did not respond to request for comment on his administration’s willingness to work toward debt-free plans.

The qyestion, ultimately, is one that may be up to a future governor — after 2018, Snyder will no longer be in office due to term limits. 

Debt Free vs. Tuition Free

In the primaries, Sanders received massive support from students and young people, many of whom viewed his higher education plan as the best for their needs. In July, after Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee, the two worked together to expand Clinton’s New College Compact so that it encompassed more of Sanders’ ideas, including making tuition at public colleges free for students with families who earn less than $125,000 per year.

Clinton’s debt-free plan as it stands now promises that all students will be able to graduate from a public institution within their state without taking out loans for tuition, books or fees. This guarantee requires that students contribute at least 10 hours of earnings per work week and that their families make a reasonable contribution based on income.

Sanders’ plan was largely similar to Clinton’s, but went a step further, calling for public universities to be tuition free for all in-state students. On campus, even after Sanders’ departure from the presidential race and Clinton’s sizable expansion of her college plan, students had a mix of reactions to the current proposed reforms.

Collin Kelly, the chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said he supports Clinton’s plan, as it helps the students who truly have need without overextending to provide aid to the wealthiest families who are capable of paying.

“This is a reconciliation of Sen. Sanders' original plan and her hesitation to allow supremely rich families, such as the children of Donald Trump for example, to benefit from free college when they don't need it,” he said. “Her focus on debt free college, then, would increase affordability for students with financial need while still forcing those with greater means to pay full tuition.”

However, Students for Sanders President Nick Kolenda argued that, despite the upsides to Clinton’s plan, tuition free remains the better alternative. According to Kolenda, the corresponding tax increase on the wealthy would act as a surrogate for paying tuition for those families and that making college entirely tuition-free would even the playing field for all students.

Kolenda said he particularly finds issue with the requirement that, under Clinton’s plan, students must contribute through work.

“Requiring low-income students to work a job to stay tuition-free when other students can work a job for extra cash or savings will keep low-income family students in a game of catch-up,” he said. “If we make it tuition-free, then even students from low-income families can save up money.”

The other major aspect of both initial plans was debt refinancing for those with existing loans. Sanders’ plan called for across the board interest rate cuts for all borrowers, while Clinton’s includes income-based plans, which would allow borrowers to specify their repayments based on their current income.

Under Clinton’s plan for the state of Michigan, up to 89 percent of families would have the option for tuition-free college. The Clinton campaign estimated that by 2021, 151,000 students would come from families who make less than $125,000, making them eligible for free tuition.

State Contribution

Regardless of the higher education reform plan’s structure, if implemented the plan’s success would depend on the degree to which state governments cooperate. State contribution is essential to Clinton’s plan, but this may prove difficult in states that have heavily disinvested in higher education.

In Michigan, the national trend of disinvestment has been clearly reflected by years of funding cuts, culminating in a significantly larger 15-percent cut in 2011. Since 2011, funding has slowly increased, with the most recent state budget bringing aggregate funding back to pre-2011 levels.

Under Clinton’s plan, states will be required to both maintain their current level of contribution and to implement a large scale reinvestment over time — but some state lawmakers said they're skeptical that will happen.

State Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor) said a significant push from the federal government would be necessary for Clinton’s plan to function well, as the current state legislature under GOP control has not prioritized higher education. 

“There would need to be a fairly substantial increase in support from the federal government,” Zemke said. “And you would have to have people who are in charge of the state who would be willing to prioritize this and we have not seen that out of the Republican majority.”

State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R–Kent County), who chairs the Higher Education Committee, said she believes there is a need for additional details but was more optimistic on the legislature’s ability to reinvest in higher education.

“As with many broad, complex policy changes, the answer is in the details. How a federal debt-free college plan would impact state funding for higher education would depend largely on how it is implemented,” she wrote in an email to the Daily. “I have made reinvesting in higher education a priority for several years.”

The University

At the University of Michigan, tuition has continuously increased over the past several years. Since 2003, in-state tuition has nearly doubled from $3,434 per semester to $6,928. The University points to the disinvestment from the state in higher education, in part, to explain this jump in student costs. Though in the same time frame, tuition revenue has increased by 135 percent. This has added $802 of costs to tuition when discounting the University’s loss of state funding.

In a June email, University Spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald explained these increases as reflecting the increasing quality of the University.

“The cost of running the University rises each year, in part from inflation and in part from new initiatives and investments in technology and all the things that make U-M a world-class university,” he wrote.

This sentiment was also reflected at the Board of Regents meeting in June — when the most recent tuition increase was approved — during which several regents saod funding needed to be increased to improve the University’s educational offerings.

Economics Prof. Paul Courant, a former provost, said in an interviewed  concerns about the quality of education the University would be able to provide if it cannot make the same level of revenue from tuition.

“You can make tuition very low if you are not buying very much with it, but actually we buy a lot with tuition," he said. "We have a first rate faculty, excellent laboratory facilities and all manner of support for students in a variety of areas and tuition is one of the sources that covers these things. If we have to be debt free and the state and federal government cannot come up with enough money that we normally generated from tuition then there will have to be an adjustment made on what the education itself is.”

Courant maintained throughout that it is difficult to conjecture costs without knowing how much the state and federal government will contribute.

University Provost Martha Pollack echoed Courant, saying she does not wish to comment on Clinton’s plan until more details are provided.

“I’m just not prepared to speak to that one yet,” she said. “There’s not yet a clear enough picture of what’s being proposed, what the government would provide, what would be required of the states. I don’t want to give you a stupid answer.”

Plans like Clinton’s and Sanders’s for increasing college affordability have also lead to concerns about increased elitism and decreased diversity at top institutions. The fear is that the prospect of free tuition would cause more prospective students to apply to top tier public universities over private ones, making admission more competitive. This in turn could cause lower-income and minority students to resort to lower-quality universities or community colleges.

At the University, there has been an increased push for diversity since the staet of Michigan outlawed affirmative action in 2006. Most recently, University President Mark Schlissel’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan

Courant said since the University already faces this issue, he does not believe Clinton’s plan would significantly impact current efforts.

“That problem already exists,” he said. “There’s nothing in particular in this plan as I understand it that will make it more difficult — I expect it may be harder to find the money.”