Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Q&A: VP for government relations discusses the Michigan Promise Scholarship

Education leaders across the state are focused on restoring state funding for K-12 and higher education to more acceptable levels than those contained in the state budget that was approved less than a month ago.

One particular area of concern for higher education is the Michigan Promise Scholarship program, which was not funded when agreement on the state’s $44 billion budget was reached Oct. 30.

Statewide, an estimated 96,000 students — including more than 6,000 at U-M — were set to receive about $112 million to help pay for college this year.

Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations, said when the budget was finalized that university officials were “disappointed that students who expected this support this year are left vulnerable.” Now she expands on those comments by answering these questions about the scholarship program.

Q. Where does the Michigan Promise Scholarship program stand now?
A.
The state budget that was finalized Oct. 30 contains no funding for the scholarships. Unless state legislators and the governor can agree on a way to fund the program, students who were promised this money for college will not get any money this year.

Q. Is there really a chance that the scholarships could still be funded?
A.
There’s always a chance. Discussions continue in Lansing on a number of priorities that both legislators and the governor would still like to address this year. The key to bringing back the scholarships or any other program is identifying the revenue to support them. Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other elected officials are urging the public and students to contact their legislators to support a revenue plan to fund the program.

Q. How many U-M students would have received the scholarships this year?
A.
Our records show that there are 6,172 students on the Ann Arbor campus who are eligible for Michigan Promise Scholarships. That total includes 1,984 students with demonstrated financial need and 4,188 without demonstrated financial need.

Q. Will the U-M be able to do anything to help students plug the gap?
A.
The university is focused on those students who qualify for financial aid. The university is committed to meeting the full demonstrated financial need — as determined through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — of all undergraduate students from the state of Michigan. To maintain that commitment, the university will spend an additional $2.3 million for financial aid to fill the gap for those 1,984 students with financial need.

Q. What can members of the university community do to help restore funding for the scholarship program?
A.
Our students come from every corner of the state. I think a very effective message right now would be for the students who were expecting Michigan Promise scholarships to tell their hometown state legislators how important this funding is to their ability to pay for college.

I understand that concerned students all across the state have launched a Facebook group called “Save the Michigan Promise” where students can tell their Michigan Promise stories, in their own words, or in a video clip. That group has almost 6,000 members. Those students have the potential to deliver a powerful message to the members of the state House and Senate.

There also is a Web site (www.michiganpromisescholarship.com) that has information about the scholarship program and information on how to contact state legislators.

Q. What are you hearing from students who have lost this funding?
A.
What we hear from students the most is that they feel let down by the state. We hear students say over and over, “The state made a promise to us and the state should fulfill that promise.”

They tell us how they have letters from the state telling them they are eligible for the scholarship and there is a certain amount of pride associated with that. For those who don’t qualify for other financial aid, it may be the only scholarship they get.

Q. What was the goal of the Michigan Promise Scholarship when it was created?
A.
The idea behind the scholarship was to give Michigan students a financial incentive to continue their education beyond high school. One of the keys to the state’s economic future is an educated work force.

Q. How does the program work?
A.
The “promise” that the state made was to offer up to $4,000 in scholarships as long as students took the Michigan Merit Exam in high school, graduated from high school and completed two years of post-secondary education. After high school that education could be completing a two-year certificate program, earning an associate’s degree or completing half the requirements toward a bachelor’s degree. Students also have to maintain at least a 2.5 college cumulative grade point average.

Q. Where was the money for the program coming from?
A.
The program was paid for through Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement funds received annually by the state. Since 2000, Michigan has received about $300 million per year as part of the tobacco settlement. How that tobacco money is used has changed over the years, based on action taken by the state Legislature.

Q. Isn’t the Michigan Promise a relatively new program?
A.
Yes and no. The Michigan Promise was established in 2007, but it replaced the Michigan Merit Award, which dates back to 1999.

Q. How are the Merit and Promise programs different?
A.
The Merit Award program provided up to $3,000 to high school graduates for outstanding performance on tests that were a part of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP). The Michigan Promise offers up to $4,000 for high school graduates who get valid scores on the Michigan Merit Exam and meet the other eligibility requirements — like completing two years of post-secondary education.