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New scholarships aim to make college more attainable in Michigan

Two teenage girls stand outside Niles High School on a sunny day.

Niles High School seniors Grace Fawcett, left, and Melody Palafox are headed to college next fall and expect to qualify for new Michigan Achievement Scholarships.

Courtesy of Niles High School

Grace Fawcett is intent on becoming a radiology technician.

She’s been looking into colleges that have radiography programs and recently settled on Jackson College. Now all she needs is $7,080 a year for in-state tuition and fees.

The new Michigan Achievement Scholarship will take care of a third of it if she qualifies, and that’s a big relief to Fawcett, a senior at Niles High School in West Michigan.  

The program was introduced by Republican state Sen. Kim LaSata of Hagar Township in Berrien County and was signed into law this month. Income restrictions are low enough that 94% of community college students and more than 75% of students at Michigan’s four-year schools will be eligible.

“This is an absolute game changer for kids who are on the fence because they’re not sure about their financial status in terms of paying for college,” said Stiles Simmons, superintendent of Westwood Community Schools in Dearborn Heights.

Starting with the class of 2023, eligible high school graduates can receive between $2,750 and $5,500 per year. 

The funding is guaranteed for students who have lived in the state for at least a year, will attend a Michigan college full time, and whose family contribution to college expenses is expected to be less than $25,000 per year based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA.

That’s much higher than the threshold for other kinds of aid such as federal Pell Grants, which are available to students whose expected family contribution is less than $5,846.

The higher contribution limit for the new Achievement Scholarship will capture a lot of middle-income students who wouldn’t qualify for other aid, LaSata said.

“This gets up into the middle class, and that was a priority for me to be able to get scholarships into the hands of as many students as possible,” she said. “I want to help as many students as possible in getting a degree.”

The scholarship program is estimated to cost $169 million in the 2023-24 school year and to grow to $562 million in four years.

Students who complete the FAFSA automatically will be considered for the Michigan Achievement Scholarship. Fifty-two percent of Michigan seniors already fill out the FAFSA to be eligible for federal loans and other grants.

“It’s nice that it notifies people without them really having to apply,” said Fawcett, 19. Many of her friends probably don’t know about the new scholarships and wouldn’t know to apply if they had to do it separately from the FAFSA, she said.

She expects to be eligible for $2,750 a year for up to three years, the amount designated for community college students. Students who attend an in-state private college or university can receive $4,000 per year for up to five years, and those attending one of Michigan’s 15 public universities can receive $5,500 for up to five years. 

The new law also creates the Michigan Achievement Scholarship Private Training Program to provide up to $2,000 per year for two years for students to attend trade schools or receive other occupational training. To qualify, applicants must have lived in Michigan for a year, apply for all other available aid, and not have previously earned a college degree. 

“Is it a cure-all that’s going to fix everything? No,” said Onjila Odeneal, Michigan director of policy and advocacy for the Institute for College Access and Success. “Is it going to encourage some students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone (to college) because of the cost? Yes.”

A state university student going to school for five years could wind up receiving $27,500, noted Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association for State Universities.

That’s significant, he said.

“This is supplanting monies that would be paid for out of family savings or student loans, and it may reduce the amount of hours that students have to work, whether during the school year or during the summer,” Hurley said.

It could be enough of an incentive for students to spend their post-secondary years in Michigan, and to stay after graduation to join the workforce, Hurley said.

“It’s a remarkably smart investment on the part of state lawmakers,” Hurley said. “It’s synergistic in terms of retaining young, degreed adults in the state as well as sending a strong message to employers and prospective future employers that we are a state that’s serious about building out a more talented workforce.”

Fawcett’s classmate Melody Palafox is considering both in-state and out-of-state schools. The scholarship is one more factor to weigh as she makes her decision. Choosing an out-of-state school would make her ineligible.

“For me personally, any amount of money is helpful,” said Palafox, 17, who will be the first person in her family to attend college.

In-state tuition at the state’s four-year public universities ranges from $10,800 at Saginaw Valley to $17,296 at Michigan Tech. Simmons said a $5,500 scholarship could make a difference, especially when combined with federal aid and other scholarships and grants students may receive.

For some, it could be the last chunk they need to be able to go to school, he said.

 “At the center of this is hope,” Simmons said, “especially for low-income students or students who are the first to attend college in their families. This is hope. This reduces the financial barrier to college that so many of our families face.”

Fewer than 50% of Westwood students go on to college or a post-secondary job certification program, Simmons said. Michigan Achievement Scholarships could increase that, he said.

“I’m really over the moon about this because, in my mind, it places my students in a very advantageous situation regarding their post-secondary options,” he said. “It provides meaningful post-secondary opportunities.”

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan. Reach her at tmauriello@chalkbeat.org.

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