Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s strong emphasis on higher education during her annual State of the State address included a proposal to augment the Michigan Merit Awards given to high school graduates. The new award system would give $4,000 to deserving college students after they have completed two years of higher education, replacing the current system that gives $2,500 to in-state students starting their first year of college. Although investing more money in Michigan’s students is critical, Granholm shied away from more pressing funding issues in her address, such as need-based scholarships and providing more state funding to Michigan universities. Both deserve a great deal of attention in the upcoming fiscal year.
The Michigan Merit Award is a score-based program that rewards student achievement as measured by the MEAP tests. The award, which about 49,000 students receive every year, is used for educational expenses at approved colleges and has traditionally been worth $2,500 for those attending in-state institutions and $1,000 for out-of-state institutions. In the past, Granholm has called for the elimination of out-of-state scholarship aid, yet none of her attempts have passed through the Legislature.
The new $4,000 award would be available to college and technical school students in 2009, after they have finished two years of post-secondary education. By giving money to students after they have completed some period of higher education, Granholm said she hopes to extend education for more students beyond their high school graduation. Unfortunately, because the money is only provided after a student completes two years of his degree, this proposal will not help those who cannot even afford a single year at an in-state university.
This problem highlights the lack of attention Granholm has paid to need-based scholarships. The affordability of post-secondary education is much more difficult for students who belong to lower socio-economic backgrounds. These individuals, because of their backgrounds, are in a much greater need for a college education in the first place. Efforts to make higher education more affordable must not exclusively prefer merit — it must first address need.
It is also unfortunate that Granholm did not address the recent decline in state funding for public universities and the corresponding rise in tuition costs. Michigan’s 15 public universities will still see plenty of cuts in their funding from the state in Granholm’s 2006 budget — $30 million this year and another $30 million in fiscal 2006. Higher education must be given adequate funding, as in-state universities cannot survive when starved for cash.
Although adding money to the current scholarship system is a good attempt to get more high school graduates into Michigan’s institutions, Granholm should have kept her funding promises to the University. Also, delaying the money until the third year of school may prevent some students from even beginning their education. It is encouraging to see Granholm pay more attention to higher education. Hopefully future steps forward will be taken with a sharper focus on those most in need of support.