Michigan plan offers tuition-free education

Cost to state of proposal: $1.8B yearly

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In a bid to broaden college access and boost the state’s lagging economy, Democrats in Michigan have proposed a first-of-its-kind entitlement program aimed at giving many young people a free ride through college at taxpayers’ expense.

The proposal, dubbed “the 2020 Plan,” is estimated to cost at least $1.8 billion each year and would offer some students free tuition throughout their college careers at Michigan’s 15 public colleges and universities, with awards based on how long students have lived in the state. Those who spend all of their K-12 years in Michigan schools would be eligible for the full amount, the average tuition rate across the state university system, which is currently about $9,500 per year.

Students attending a public college with tuition rates above that average would be responsible for the difference.

After struggling for years to balance its budget, Michigan ended the last fiscal year with a surplus of more than $450 million, and Republicans aren’t surprised that their Democratic colleagues have quickly come up with new ways to use it.

“There’s no shortage of people coming to the door with ideas of how to spend that additional money,” said state Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

“It just seems like another social program,” he said of the Democratic proposal. “There’s this presumption out there that Michigan is flush with additional revenue, but I don’t know where [Democrats] plan on coming with an additional $1.8 billion every year.”

To fund their idea, Democrats have spoken in generalities about closing “tax loopholes” put in place by “special interest lobbyists” and others. So far, no specific budget cuts or tax code changes have been put forth.

State Sen. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat and co-author of the proposal, said on Thursday that “specific recommendations” of how to pay for the program were intentionally left out. She envisions the creation of a new state commission, comprised of lawmakers from both parties, to hammer out the details.

Ms. Warren and other Democrats remain confident that $1.8 billion or more in waste and unnecessary tax breaks can be eliminated through a careful examination of the state budget. They also believe that the future economic rewards of their proposal, chief among them a more educated, job-ready population, far outweigh the steep upfront costs.

“Graduates have $40,000 or more of student loan debt [after college], so they’re pressured by having to get the best possible job so they can pay for that monkey on their back,” she said. “We are losing young people who don’t get the chance to say, ‘I love Michigan, but I can’t raise my kids here because I have to go get a better job elsewhere to pay off my student loan debt.’ “

Critics point out that, like other entitlement programs, costs are nearly impossible to predict. With college tuition rates rising year after year, a program that costs $1.8 billion now could easily cost twice as much in a decade.

To counter that, Ms. Warren hopes the 2020 Plan will create a competitive system between public institutions, which she believes would strive to keep costs down or risk losing students. Since the state would pay only the average tuition rate, colleges that raise rates far above that average would be less appealing, Ms. Warren said.

The reality, however, could end up being quite different. Some education specialists believe that colleges and universities, guaranteed to be paid in full each year by Michigan taxpayers, would squeeze money from their students by hiking athletic, technology and a variety of other fees not technically covered under the tuition umbrella.

“You can bet that every public university in Michigan will put special fees on everything under the sun. If you want to go use the toilet in the student center, you’ll have to pay a buck,” said Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a nonprofit higher education think tank.

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