The cost of higher education has been a prominent part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s agenda these days. On Tuesday, she called for an increase in funds for the Michigan Promise Grant program. But coupled with this declaration was the unfortunate decision to cut need-based scholarships. Providing more funding for merit-based scholarships is welcome, but the state has a responsibility not to fall behind on its need-based coverage either. With an increasing number of students depending on both merit-based and need-based scholarships to attend college, the state should look elsewhere for budget cuts and keep financial aid levels as high as possible.

The proposal is the latest in a string of fiscal measures proposed by Granholm as the state seeks to reduce government expenses while keeping college affordable for residents. Last month, universities were urged to freeze tuition and the Michigan Promise Zone Act was passed in an effort to increase merit-based scholarships for students in low-income areas. If adopted, this proposal would increase funding for the Michigan Promise Grants — which provide scholarships of up to $4,000 to eligible students — by $59.5 million. But Granholm also wants to lump need-based programs into an overarching fund called the Michigan College Access Grants and decrease funds for need-based scholarships by 5.8 percent.

The legislature should continue to support merit-based scholarships. The Kalamazoo Promise, which inspired the Michigan Promise Zone Act, has already shown the effectiveness of merit-based funding. Recipients of these scholarships experienced higher graduation rates. And enrollment, according to Public Policy Prof. Susan Dynarski, tends to increase by 5 to 7 percent as a result of merit-based scholarships. Clearly merit-based scholarships serve a vital role in helping students opt for a college education.

The increase in funds for the Michigan Promise Grants should not, however, come at the expense of need-based scholarships — a necessity for students disadvantaged by an economy in recession. Granholm claims that the new Michigan College Access Program would increase the number of students eligible for aid, but merging the state’s six need-based scholarship programs into one increases the number of dependents and reduces the funds by $18.8 million. Now students in need of aid will have to deal with less money for an even greater number of overall students.

The low-income students who are ineligible or unqualified to receive Michigan Promise Grants are the clear losers in this situation. Last month, the government increased funds for Federal Pell Grants by $14 billion. But the increase will result in very little extra money per person — scant consolation for students who will now find scholarship opportunities even harder to come by on the basis of need alone.

If the state wants to signal its commitment to providing inexpensive higher education for its residents, need-based scholarships should not be subjected to budget cuts. Last week, Wayne State University announced it was going to double funds for need-based scholarships while simultaneously increasing merit-based scholarships to ease the burden on its students. The state should be similarly mindful of students’ economic difficulties. Instead of saving on education, Granholm needs to stick to cutting other unnecessary expenditures.

A decrease in funds for need-based scholarships is also likely to have implications for the state economy. A large, competitive and educated workforce is key to the state’s revival. If the state fails to facilitate higher education for its residents in their time of need, it forgoes an opportunity to improve its future prospects.

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