How Grand Valley State’s free tuition plan stacks up

The Michigan university's pitch to families making less than $50,000 could help students overcome one of the biggest barriers to enrolling.

Students whose families earn less than $50,000 and live in specific counties in Michigan will have their courses paid for if they attend Grand Valley State University.

The public university located just outside of Grand Rapids announced on Monday it would be offering free tuition to first-time students who meet that criteria and a few other minor income determinants starting with the 2021 fall semester.

University officials say its Grand Valley Pledge, which is similar to other offerings nationwide by some college and universities, will remove a huge barrier to higher education for underserved populations in and around western and central Michigan.

“It is another way of assuring that we create opportunity and advance equity in the communities in which we live and teach, as well as inspire a broader movement of making higher education accessible to all,” said GVSU President Philomena Mantella.

Grand Valley State is offering the program to students who are from counties where it has campuses: Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Grand Traverse, Calhoun and Wayne. It says it will use FAFSA information to determine eligibility, which will include assets such as bank account balances, net worth of investments and current businesses or investment farms.

If students do meet those criteria, they will be eligible. The program is only for bachelor’s degree-seeking undergraduates and does not cover those transferring in. They must enroll in at least 12 credit hours to qualify.

“We wanted to make it as simple as possible,” said Michelle Rhodes, associate vice president for Financial Aid, who noted the program alleviates the complexities of filling out several financial aid forms. “Students who meet the financial criteria according to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will have their tuition covered for the four years they are at Grand Valley.”

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One of the key pieces, the university notes, is that students who “qualify for aid in excess of tuition can use those funds to cover other costs,” such as books, housing or dining.

The cost of tuition at Grand Valley State is just over $13,000 for in-state students. Room and board can run around $9,000, though the majority of its students – around 72% – live off campus. According to U.S. News and World Report statistics, more than 50% of full-time undergrads at GVSU were given financial aid but only 20% had that need fully met. The Pledge program undoubtedly will change that and in the process, help the university maintain its strategic enrollment goals.

“This is a great start to eliminating equity gaps at GVSU,” said B. Donta Truss, vice president for Enrollment Development and Educational Outreach.

Grand plan is one of many to ensure future for students

Grand Valley’s plan is not new, but its Pledge should help families who have been hard hit financially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students have had to delay or abandon plans to attend colleges and universities for a variety of reasons, including tuition costs.

Many institutions, including some of the most elite universities – Harvard, MIT, Yale and Stanford, for example – offer some form of free tuition to students in need. Even states have jumped on board in recent years, with New York providing free four-year tuition to families making less than $125,000 who enroll in the State University of New York system, and Indiana, which offers free four-year tuition to participating institutions but based on a number of factors including family size (for example, the family-of-three threshold would be just under  $41,000.)

Across the country, there are many states that offer free tuition at two-year institutions, including Maryland, Tennessee and Rhode Island.

The state of Michigan in fact has launched two programs during the pandemic to offer students 25 and over free tuition through its Reconnect Program to attend colleges in districts where they live and a free program for first responders. The University of Michigan allows students of families who make less than $65,000 with assets below $50,000 free tuition.

The most high-profile has been California, whose college promise initiative expanded a year ago to include two full years for all first-time students.

President Joe Biden, in his election plan, said he would like to ensure that all of those who attend community colleges in the future will be able to do so tuition-free through a partnership plan where the federal government would cover 75% of costs and states the other 25%. In turn, those who attend two-year colleges would then be able to fully transfer those credits to four-year institutions without additional penalties, fees or costs.

The President also wants to piggyback on the State University of New York idea and offer free tuition to four-year institutions for those whose families earn less than $125,000. That, in turn, not only would make college affordable to millions of future students but also would not saddle them with a lot of debt once they’ve complete their degrees.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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