Legislature should protect Michigan Promise

Late last month, the Michigan Senate voted to cut off funding for the Michigan Promise Scholarship, which provides as much as $4,000 in college tuition for students who have graduated from the state’s high schools.

The vote in the Republican-dominated upper chamber was 19-17, and was largely along party lines. Kalamazoo’s Sen. Tom George was among those voting to kill the program.

A spokesperson for George emphasized that the senator, who hopes to win the GOP nomination for the 2010 gubernatorial election, understands that there is considerable wiggle room in the wake of the Senate vote. Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Michigan House of Representatives, in which her fellow Democrats have a majority, are not about to sign off on outright elimination of the state Promise. Comprises are likely to be worked out by a conference committee.

The state Senate’s action, were it to stand, would eliminate a $140 million merit-based award that an estimated 96,000 college students have been expecting to receive when the new academic year begins this autumn.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are acutely aware of Michigan’s precarious fiscal situation, what with a still-unresolved 2009-10 budget deficit that has rocketed far beyond $1 billion. Had it not been for federal stimulus funds, the red ink would be much deeper.

Although $140 million is a relatively small part of the deficit, it’s no surprise that many lawmakers view the program as expendable.

Nevertheless, abruptly scrapping the current Michigan Promise, enacted in 2006, strikes us as shortsighted at best. In fact, we’re keenly interested in some ideas advanced by lawmakers such as State Rep. Jase Bolger, a freshman Republican from Battle Creek whose District 63 includes the eastern half of Kalamazoo County and a portion of Calhoun County. He visited the Gazette and spoke with editors and reporters this past week.

Bolger is among lawmakers considering alternatives to eliminating the state Promise. He is among those proposing funding the program in the form of a loan, which would be written off if recipients remain in Michigan for at least five years after graduation. Those who leave the state would be required to repay the loans.

It’s instructive to point out that, although the Michigan Promise resembles the nationally famous Kalamazoo Promise, the monetary difference is significant. The $4,000 offered by the state Promise is a maximum amount. The Kalamazoo Promise, funded by anonymous donors, pays tuition in full at state universities or colleges for up to four years for qualified graduates of the Kalamazoo Public Schools system.

A positive aspect of the idea advanced by Bolger and his colleagues is that student paybacks would reduce the cost of the state’s Promise. Equally important is that it would provide an incentive for graduates to remain in Michigan, whose long-term economic prosperity will rely heavily on a well-trained work force with diversified skills in an increasingly high-tech job market.

Indeed, this approach would continue important funding for higher education which, in this deep recession, is becoming more expensive and difficult for many families.
Economic reality, of course, is paramount as legislators grope for ways to produce a constitutionally mandated balanced budget. But meat-cleaver approaches are not the answer, especially in an area as important as higher education.