By CELESTE BOTT
Capital News Service
LANSING – A statewide discussion is underway on how students pay for tuition at public, private and community colleges.
College affordability, an ongoing subject of debate, gained considerable momentum when President Barack Obama highlighted the topic while speaking at the University of Michigan last year.
And a State of the State Survey from Michigan State University found that while 95 percent of residents believe a college education is “very important” for success, affordability is a barrier for many.
The report, “A Look at the College-Going Culture of Michigan Adults,” indicated that 67 percent of residents “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree” that a college education is reasonably affordable for people in the state.
Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN), said she was thrilled by such ambition but discouraged with the financial struggle students and their families face.
“This gap between college aspirations and affordability needs to be addressed in our state,” Johnson said. “We need to continue to educate today’s youth about the steps to get to college and how it can be affordable, but we also need to continue to work with the leaders of our state to understand the impact affordability is making on building a highly educated workforce in Michigan.”
She works with high school students on college and federal aid applications, and sets up local college access networks across the state – there are 51 so far.
The directory of local networks is broken down by county on the MCAN website.
To help students who want a traditional college education but can’t afford it, financial aid models are under examination.
Washington D.C.-based Education Trust Midwest has proposed a “debt-free college guarantee” through changes to the financial aid system.
The trust’s president, Kati Haycock, said that highly qualified students are missing educational opportunities because of high tuition.
“Every year, high price tags are standing in the way of far too many deserving students. And that has very real consequences for our entire country,” Haycock said.
“By redesigning the aid system and better targeting the dollars our country is already spending, we can ensure that more students get to and through college, and set them on a path to a bright future that doesn’t leave them – or our economy – in student loan debt,” she said.
The trust’s debt-free college guarantee would extend to students with family incomes that fall in the bottom 40 percent. Students with family incomes in the bottom 80 percent could receive no-interest loans and an affordable, income-based repayment plan.
That would be done by bringing together a series of existing higher education tax, loan and grant programs.
About $24 billion from existing federal aid programs would be redistributed in grants to states, based on their percentage of students in poverty and performance on college access, affordability and success measures.
According to 2011 data from the Institute of College Access and Success, based in Oakland, Calif., 62 percent of students from Michigan colleges graduate with debt. Their average debt is $27, 541.
The data was broken down for each public and private nonprofit university in the state.
Two of the institutions with the highest percentage of students in debt – Spring Arbor University and Ferris State University – have taken steps since to alleviate their graduates’ financial burdens.
Ferris State created the Student Debt Task Force, led by education Professor Leonard Johnson.
According to Johnson, the task force’s forums – open to students and faculty – have produced many ideas for controlling college costs.
“There are some things you just can’t do overnight,” Johnson said. “But we can try to determine what we can be doing, say three years from now, and look toward beginning those processes.”
Ideas included training academic advisors to counsel students on financial aid options, the creation of better tracking programs to monitor degree progress and tuition payment plans, and more money management seminars.
At Spring Arbor, beginning in fall 2013, all incoming freshmen will be eligible for the Loan Repayment Assistance Program, a new initiative.
The program guarantees that if a Spring Arbor student’s income after graduation is low, that graduate will receive help in repaying loans.
If a student’s income is below the program’s lower income threshold, loans will be reimbursed in full.
If a student’s income increases to the program’s upper income threshold, the benefits will be reduced proportionately.
By CELESTE BOTT