Michigan High School Seniors Lose Scholarship Money

For the past three years, Michigan gave high school seniors at least $4,000 to help them pay for college or job training under a program called the Michigan Promise. But because of a budget crisis, the state eliminated the scholarship at the end of 2009 even though Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm opposed the move. More than 96,000 students lost the scholarship this year.

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Students in Michigan are struggling to find ways to pay for higher education, now that the state has eliminated a scholarship called the Michigan Promise. The program awarded high school seniors at least $4,000 for college or job training. But late last year, Michigan eliminated the program. Supporters of the program, including the Democratic governor, say it was crucial to the state's long-term recovery from the economic doldrums.

Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta has the story.

RICK PLUTA: The windfall of national tobacco lawsuit settlement dollars allowed Michigan to set up a scholarship fund in the 1990s. It was Governor Jennifer Granholm's idea to extend the scholarship to every high school graduate, starting with the class of 2007. But last year, Michigan, like almost every other state, ran into big budget troubles. So the legislature took away the $100 million that funded the scholarship and used it to plug budget holes.

Granholm says that was a big mistake as Michigan tries to double the number of college graduates living here and create a highly educated workforce that will attract employers.

Governor JENNIFER GRANHOLM (Democrat, Michigan): I think it's really, really important for us to provide access to higher education as we try to double the number of our college graduates. So I think the Michigan Promise is one important aspect of that.

PLUTA: Granholm says the Promise was also critical to the success of local Promise Zones. The state allowed 10 high-poverty communities to take a portion of local property taxes to help pay even more of a student's tuition.

Gov. GRANHOLM: The foundation of those Promise zones were Promise scholarships, and so the challenge is if we don't have a Promise scholarship, those Promise zones become much more challenging for those local communities to send their kids to school.

PLUTA: She says the Promise zones encouraged at-risk teens to finish high school. Other states that have turned to publicly funded scholarships are also running into budget woes. Vincent Badolato is a higher education expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures. He says while states want to make higher education more affordable, it's easier to cut spending on colleges than nearly anywhere else in a state's budget. He says many states are shifting the burden to schools and demanding better results if they want taxpayers' money.

Mr. VINCENT BADOLATO (National Conference of State Legislatures): I think it's starting to have states think about - and more seriously think about performance funding, providing a certain amount of money for institutions if they meet certain benchmarks for (unintelligible) students.

PLUTA: Michigan State University junior Brett Tesla(ph) says the Promise scholarship helped him and a lot of other students focus on trying to graduate in four years. Tesla is one of 96,000 students who lost the Michigan Promise scholarship this year. He says he'll take out another loan because he doesn't have time to take on a second job, and his parents can't help with any more tuition costs.

Mr. BRETT TESLA: I think I should be all right, but I don't know. It just seems like kind of a lose-lose situation.

PLUTA: Brett Tesla says other students he knows might just reduce their class loads, work more or even delay graduating.

Last year, Michigan State forgave freshmen and sophomores the portion of their tuitions that would've been paid by the Michigan Promise, but MSU can't afford to continue picking up the cost, and this year, only lower-income students will get the same deal. Other students will be allowed to take out additional loans and hope that Michigan can find a way to restore its promise to all of its college students.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Lansing, Michigan.

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