What policymakers need to know about tuition-free college options for Michigan

Teacher with student in large college classroom.

By Michelle Miller-Adams

May 2, 2024

Michigan has long been a leader in college access programs. But in the past decade some other states have made bigger strides toward a tuition-free pathway to higher education. Half of U.S. states now have tuition-free college programs—sometimes called “Promise” programs—that aim to build a more skilled workforce, increase prosperity, address the rising cost of college, and reduce inequalities in college access.

In her recent budget request to the Legislature, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a Community College Guarantee that would allow every new high-school graduate in Michigan to receive an associate degree or skilled certificate tuition-free at one of the state’s 31 community and tribal colleges. With tuition-free college proposals under discussion, this is a good moment to consider the costs and benefits of various Promise program designs.

As a new report outlines, for a relatively modest, additional investment of about $30-40 million per year, the state could provide tuition-free community college to all recent high-school graduates. This model is inexpensive because it builds on investments already made, including the Michigan Achievement Scholarship and Michigan Reconnect.

For a further investment of about $25-30 million per year, the state could provide annual $1,000 stipends to low- and moderate-income students to help with out-of-pocket college costs.

A more expansive program that makes bachelor’s-granting public colleges and universities tuition-free for low- and moderate-income students is affordable in the context of the overall state budget, costing about $50-70 million more per year once four classes of graduating high-school seniors are enrolled.

Further investment in tuition-free college undoubtedly comes at a cost, but it would help Michigan families while generating more degrees and credentials to support the state’s economy. These programs, along with attention to student support and navigation at critical transition points, would position Michigan among leading states in terms of college access and affordability.

In this report, Upjohn Institute researchers Michelle Miller-Adams and Kyle Huisman consider two design options for an expansion of tuition-free college in Michigan. The first model would cover community college tuition for recent high school graduates. The second model would cover bachelor’s degrees at the state’s public colleges and universities for recent high school graduates from families whose income falls below a specified threshold. The two models could be combined to provide a broader range of options for students. The researchers estimate the costs of each model over five years and outline the strengths and weaknesses of each.   

While this report focuses on Michigan, an evaluation of the pros and cons of different tuition-free college models may be useful to other states considering the same questions.

Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute and author of several books about the free-tuition college Promise movement.

Date: May 2, 2024
Categories: Commentary