Guaranteeing Free Tuition: A Game-Changer from University of Michigan

By Larry Good, Director, Connecting Credentials

The University of Michigan recently unveiled a dramatic new proposition: any in-state student accepted to work on their first undergraduate degree who comes from a family making $65,000/year or less will be guaranteed free tuition for four years of study. This means that students from families making up to roughly the median income in Michigan will be eligible. This commitment is significant on multiple levels, and represents inspiring leadership from the state’s most prestigious university. The ripples from the Go Blue Guarantee may trigger a transformation in how we increase postsecondary attainment inclusively and affordably.

U-M’s guarantee effectively targets students who would be first-generation college attendees, one of the toughest cohorts to reach. This takes away an enormous perceived barrier for those students – the cost of attending the university. And it raises the incentive for those students to prepare well in high school, knowing that acceptance at U-M will result in free tuition. For years, the University of Michigan has worked to find ways to increase the diversity of their student population. The demography of families making less than $65,000 a year spans a more diverse mix in terms of race and ethnicity, and should result in a more diverse student mix over time. And, by using an income threshold as the trigger, the guarantee also opens doors for learners from white working-class families whose income has fallen due to changes in the Michigan economy.

U-M’s initiative offers a powerful rebranding of financial aid and a way to change public perception about college affordability. For years, the university has been increasing its support for financial aid at nearly three times the pace of tuition increases. For some time, U-M has been able to package substantial financial aid for lower income students, but that effort was largely invisible. While this was significant for individual families, it took place after application and acceptance and was not known to the broader pool of potential applicants.

The Go Blue Guarantee bundles the wide array of financial aid resources into a clear, simple proposition – free tuition if your family makes less than $65,000/year. That’s a bold statement, easy to understand and remember. It’s a very different way of explaining and promoting financial aid opportunities. Importantly, the university intentionally termed this offer a “guarantee”, which is a huge change from the language typically used in describing financial aid. This language parallels that of the Kalamazoo Promise and the many subsequent community free tuition promise initiatives around Michigan and the country. It advances the proposition that cost should not be a barrier to postsecondary education in an era in which postsecondary credentials are essential to achieving good jobs, career pathways and family-sustaining incomes.

How can Michigan afford to make this promise? By braiding a lot of different funding sources behind the curtain and using financial aid funding they’ve raised to fill the gaps. For each learner, they will ensure the package includes all existing grants the person is eligible for (such as Pell grants) and then make up the difference. That makes the net cost to the university much smaller than if they had to fund every dollar of the guarantee themselves. But the learner won’t have to do their own search for each piece of the puzzle (and likely miss some); all they need to know is that if they meet the Guarantee qualification terms, tuition will be free for them.

In sum, the Go Blue Guarantee promises to increase opportunity for students across Michigan, including many who never thought they’d be able to attend the University of Michigan. This is a bold and powerful idea and it will be exciting to see how it plays out.

Learn more here.

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