Race and place make a big difference when it comes to postsecondary education in Michigan. A new report from the Michigan League for Public Policy, Expanding the Dream: Helping Michigan reach racial equity in bachelor’s degree completion, examines the data and presents solutions to ensure that all Michigan students can thrive beyond high school.

In Michigan, only 14 percent of Native Americans, 18 percent of African Americans and 20 percent of Latinx adults age 25 or over possess a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31 percent of White adults and 66 percent of Asian adults. Michigan is actually third-worst in the nation for the share of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students relative to its share of Black residents. These disparities stem from a legacy of systemic racism; for example, school and neighborhood segregation in which students of color were provided fewer college preparation opportunities than White students. 

“There are many reasons this gap exists, including historically racist policies like the GI Bill that promised all service members a free higher education in theory while perpetuating racial inequities in practice. Educational disparities also stem from the impact of economic inequality on children and their school readiness, school funding systems that do not recognize the added costs of teaching children in high-poverty schools, and lower high school completion rates,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, President and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy. 

Across the board, disinvestment in state funding for universities has resulted in large tuition increases, which contribute to the racial inequities in schools.  

Michigan has drastically cut funding to its public universities in the past 20 years. The largest cuts came during the period between 2000 and 2010, when total funding for university operations was slashed by nearly $38.5 million, not accounting for inflation. And Michigan spends just $4 in public student aid per full time enrolled student, less than any other state in the nation. The national average is $752 per student.  

Those decades of disinvestments have created a dire situation that will be made even bleaker if cuts to higher education are made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences.  

“We certainly appreciate the heroism of our frontline workers who have kept our society together and our families fed and well-supplied during the COVID pandemic, including workers of color and those making low wages. But we also need to recognize that many of these workers are on the job right now out of necessity as much as choice,” Jacobs said. 

“The best way to express our gratitude to these workers is to offer them better options and opportunities.” 

The League’s report lays out some policy changes that could create a more equitable picture for postsecondary education in Michigan and applauds Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “60 by 30” campaign to establish a state goal of 60 percent of Michigan residents completing a postsecondary certificate or degree by the year 2030. This includes “Futures for Frontliners,” which would provide a tuition-free pathway to college or technical education to essential workers.  

The report also advocates for other state programs that would go a long way in helping students who would otherwise be left out of the system, especially students of color, students from families with lower incomes and older workers without a degree or certificate. This includes the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, which would provide two years of community college free to high school graduates, and Michigan Reconnect, which would provide two years of free training or community college for students 25 or older. Michigan Reconnect had strong bipartisan support, passing the Michigan Legislature in March and being signed by the governor on April 2 before ultimately being nixed to free up funding for COVID-19 needs.   

 Additional recommendations include making more state aid available to individuals in state prisons, increasing the number of high school guidance counselors in schools that serve large numbers of students with low incomes and students of color, removing the citizenship or permanent residency requirement from the Tuition Incentive Program and the Michigan Competitive Scholarship and increasing outreach to promote general awareness of the Tuition Incentive Program.