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State universities raise concerns about free community college

It seems as though Michigan’s four-year universities have some qualms about the governor’s new plan for universal free community college. Their concern is likely a little misguided.

In an article in Crain’s Detroit Business (paywall), Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Dan Hurley expressed his belief that the plan, if the legislature funds it, would take a bite out of Michigan’s already-depleted regional universities. Just so we’re all clear about whose dogs are barking, MASU is the lobbying arm of Michigan’s four-year universities.

His argument goes something like this: free community college will cause a significant decrease in enrollment at the regional public universities. Aside from the lost tuition revenues, the free community college plan will also damage other revenue streams on these campuses, including room-and-board.

On-campus housing literally doubles the student’s annual cost of attendance. It’s not gravy for some universities; it’s how they get by. It’s also how students accumulate massive educational debt.

That aside, the base argument is flawed. Here’s why. Michigan’s community colleges enroll about 220,000 students, while the four-year universities enroll around 300,000. The community colleges’ peak enrollment was about 412,000, while the universities’ peak enrollment was about 356,000. Community colleges have lost 55% of their enrollment since it peaked during the Great Recession. During that same time, enrollment at state universities dropped by less than 17%.

Michigan students haven’t fled community colleges because these schools are so expensive. Making them free will likely not produce the great population shift that MASU fears.

State universities are losing enrollment because HS students aren’t prepared

So, what’s going on? According to data collected by the State of Michigan, in 2022, nearly 72% of Michigan’s high school seniors were not college ready. Nearly three out of four students were not prepared for the academic rigor of university coursework. Slightly more than half of them were proficient at reading and writing, but only 30% of them were proficient in mathematics.

The reason Michigan’s state universities are emptying out is because three out of four high school seniors will have a tough time getting admitted to one of them. State universities look for students who fall into the sweet spot in the Venn diagram of reading, writing, and mathematics readiness. According to the data, Michigan K-12 schools don’t produce enough of those students. Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State University vacuum up most of the students who are truly academically prepared for university classes.

With all due respect to MASU, there are a lot of strategies it could employ to put state universities in a better overall position. First and foremost, the problem is that few high school seniors are ready for college coursework.

MASU’s membership could work together to develop a K-12 curriculum that both meets the state standards and better prepares students for admission to state universities. By making this curriculum freely available to Michigan schools and school districts, MASU’s members can more directly influence the college readiness of high school seniors. MASU could indirectly ensure that its members have a much larger pool of college-ready students.

For some students, spending a couple of years at a community college might work out nicely. Community colleges have the facilities, teachers, and equipment to remediate and reteach students. MASU members could work with community colleges to improve readiness and transfer outcomes.

MASU could be part of the solution

One reason Michigan has a few large state universities and many smaller ones has to do with research activity. In FY 2022, Michigan’s state universities performed more than $3B in research. $1.8B of that research was performed by the University of Michigan. Another $750M of research was performed at Michigan State University.

Research is big business and among universities, it creates the “haves and have nots.” If MASU were deeply concerned about the life expectancy of Michigan’s regional universities, it could facilitate research partnerships among its members. That would do three things: first, it would transfer research dollars to smaller universities. Second, it would provide practical guidance to the regional universities on developing more robust research programs. Third, it would establish the state as a research center, which would attract more students and more dollars to Michigan.

Instead of worrying about whether community colleges will steal a piece of the pie from the MASU members, why don’t MASU members figure out how to make a bigger pie?

Photo Credit: University of Michigan Medical School Information Service, via Flickr