News Story

Michigan manages to lose students while hiking higher ed spending

Enrollment at public colleges plummets as state gives away additional billions

Michigan has increased spending on higher education by 20% over the past four years, only to see enrollment in state colleges decline by more than 50,000 students.

The state spent $1.9 billion on public community colleges and universities in 2019. Since then, spending on higher education has increased by 20%, with $2.3 billion going to public institutions in 2023.

Michigan Association of State Universities CEO Daniel Hurley applauded the spending in a February statement.

“Funding to expand financial aid opportunities and to provide other substantial student success programs,” Hurley said, “will change the educational and career trajectory for thousands more young adults in the state.”

But Michigan public college enrollments have dropped by more than 13% since 2019. Though 394,768 students were enrolled at state schools four years ago, only 342,741 were enrolled this spring, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit that tracks higher education data. The steepest decline came in public two-year enrollments, the specific target of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Reconnect program. Enrollments in two-year programs fell nearly 21%, from 128,061 in 2019 to 101,549 this year. Enrollments in public four-year programs declined 9.5%, from 266,707 to 241,192 over the same period.

Public college enrollments decreased nationally, although not as sharply as in Michigan. Spring 2019 saw 12,391,293 Americans enrolled in public 2- and 4-year institutions. By spring 2023, the number had dropped to 11,213,097 students, a 9.5 % decrease.

Researchers cite Michigan’s aging population, fewer high school graduates, and trade schools as possible reasons for this enrollment discrepancy. But these factors apply in many states that have not experienced declines as severe as Michigan’s. The state has recovered only 85% of its pre-pandemic overall college enrollment, according to a recent Bridge Michigan article, putting Michigan’s recovery in 48th place nationwide.

“[S]tate leaders need to further amplify public investment in Michigan’s public universities and the more than quarter million students they serve annually,” Hurley said in a February statement on Whitmer’s higher education push.

His confidence in the power of public spending appears not have been dimmed by the continuing slide in college enrollments.

“I do think one myth that needs to get busted is that the return on investment somehow has been diminished. And that has not been the case at all,” Hurley told CBS News Detroit after the new enrollment numbers came out. “I actually have some optimism here moving forward that we’ll be able to stop the bleeding on enrollment and actually turn things around and start rebuilding.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.