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Community colleges need more than free tuition programs

The Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges does not appear to support Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to make community colleges free to all. Instead, the Subcommittee proposed funding increases to the Michigan Tuition Grant and increased state funding to universities and community colleges.

Representative Samantha Steckloff of Farmington Hills, who chairs the Subcommittee, apparently labors under the assumption that most community college students attend classes part-time because they cannot pay for full-time tuition, and the proposed increases to the Michigan Tuition Grant program will somehow help them become full-time students.

Currently, most community college students – as in 3 out of 4 – attend classes part-time because they also work full-time, care for dependents under the age of 5, or are the only source of income for their households. Many community college students are independent adults. They lack the time to enroll full-time in college.

Representative Steckloff does not seem to recognize that full-time attendance for most independent adults is not – and will never be – an option. All the scholarship money in the world cannot buy these students more hours in the day. Instead of acknowledging the needs of community college students and developing solutions to assist them, Representative Steckloff aims to entice them to become full-time students so they can qualify for more state aid.

The Subcommittee’s funding proposal would expand eligibility for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship to help defray the cost of housing, transportation, childcare and other non-tuition expenses. That’s great, but an expansion comes nowhere near the cost of housing, transportation, childcare, and other non-tuition costs of attendance.

Fund community colleges to meet the needs of part-time students

At $1,000 per month, Michigan has one of the highest average childcare costs in the country. The average monthly mortgage payment in Michigan is $1,031. Rent averages more than $1,500. Transportation expenses average $1,025 per month. The average monthly grocery bill for a family of four is $975.

Independent adults cannot afford to attend school full time because non-tuition grants aren’t going to cover the $5,000-$6,000 per month that they need to spend to keep themselves and their families housed, fed, clothed, warmed, healthy, and transported while they take classes.

Community colleges aren’t simply a path to a four-year university. They need to provide solutions for non-traditional college students, whose challenges go well beyond the cost of attendance. Those solutions have to include academic programs that enable students to access high-wage, high demand jobs. They must include compact semesters that allow students to complete required credits without compromising the quality of the education. Community colleges must also deliver support services like affordable childcare on campus , campus-based health care, mental health care, learning support services, and high quality career planning and academic advising, among others.

Funding community colleges appropriately to allow them to offer these services could potentially result in higher enrollment rates and higher completion rates. That approach might produce much better results than throwing an extra $1,000 at students once every semester.

Photo Credit: Jenny Bradford, via Flickr