Michigan Senate OKs new scholarships, boosts college funding

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LANSING — The Michigan Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a spending bill that would fund a new college scholarship program for high school graduates and increase operations funding for state universities by 11% overall.

The legislation, one of 14 budget bills to clear the chamber, was passed 31-4 with broad bipartisan support and will be negotiated further in talks with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the House, which is expected to advance its own budget plan starting Wednesday. It would be the largest higher education increase and budget in decades, at a time the state has surplus tax revenue.

Republicans who control the Senate also set aside $2 billion for tax cuts in hopes that an agreement can be reached between GOP legislators and the Democratic governor, who have been at odds over the size and breadth of tax reductions. Senators split along party lines on many other spending bills Tuesday and will pass a K-12 measure Wednesday.

The Senate did overwhelmingly agree to propose awarding “achievement” scholarships to 2022 high school graduates, with a goal of continuing the new program in future years. Students attending in-state four-year colleges could get up to $6,000 a year, while those at in-state community colleges could qualify for up to $3,000 annually. More than three-quarters of this year’s graduating class would be eligible.

The aid would cover tuition or mandatory fees not already offset by need-based federal Pell Grants or Michigan’s tuition program for Medicaid recipients. The state has previously launched tuition-free community college assistance for adults ages 25 and older and frontline pandemic workers.

“When our young people put in the work and demonstrate they are capable of being successful, we should ensure they have the freedom to pursue a postsecondary degree that fits their career paths,” said Sen. Kim LaSata, a Niles Republican who chairs the Senate’s higher education budget subcommittee.

The Democratic governor had proposed a 10% boost to operations funds for 15 universities.

The Senate bill includes an 11% hike, along with $361 million for the scholarships and $562 million from the school aid fund to pay down pension liabilities of seven universities that are part of the Michigan Public Employees Retirement System.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the investments “are incredibly important. For 30 years, Republicans and Democrats have failed our students.”

The current $1.8 billion higher education budget is lower than it was 20 years ago and gradually was cut to below $1.4 billion as of 10 years ago. It would jump by nearly $1 billion in the next fiscal year.

Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend various spending bills to align with Whitmer’s proposal. They sought, for instance, to use $500 million of federal rescue aid to give “hero” bonus pay to essential pandemic workers.

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