CFCT Vice President Shares Thoughts on Michigan’s Incremental Approach to Free College Tuition

Posted by Pj Amartey on March 20, 2024 at 11:02 AM

By Doug Ross

The goal of the Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) is to press for the creation of tuition-free public community colleges and universities in all fifty states. If history is a guide, it will happen. Just as an evolving American economy dictated the need for universal community-funded primary education in the 19th century and similarly supported high school education in the 20th, the 21st century economy demands formal learning beyond high school for both individual opportunity and community prosperity.

CFCT’s mission is to see that universal publicly funded post-secondary education happens sooner rather than later.

What Michigan has learned under the leadership of Governor Gretchen Whitmer is that progress can proceed piecemeal if you operate with a vision of a comprehensive system of publicly funded college tuition. Governor Whitmer’s strategy however required adept adaptation due to political and economic realities. When the pandemic forced essential workers to risk their health while the rest of us sheltered at home, the opportunity arose to introduce tuition free community college for a group the community saw as deserving. An influx of federal funds enabled her to launch a GI Bill for frontline workers she dubbed Futures for Frontliners. The principle of free college was established.

In her first State of the State message in January of 2019 she had proposed free community college tuition for both students immediately following high school graduation and for adults.  Legislative support existed for the latter but not the former, so she advanced a Reconnect program for adults 25 or older without a college degree. It passed with strong bipartisan majorities. When a bipartisan commission she had appointed to recommend ways to grow the state’s population advocated extending two years of free tuition to all students graduating high school, she proposed providing two years of free tuition at a community college to all graduating high school seniors to give Michigan a K-12+2 system.  It is currently before the Legislature. 

Piece by piece a comprehensive system of universal community-funded higher education is falling into place. There is still a way to go before the first two-year of Michigan’s universities are tuition-free — the second part of her commission’s recommendations. But I am confident it will happen over time as the circumstances and politics permit.

For more information on Governor Whitmer’s approach, including lessons for states seeking to make their public colleges tuition free, I highly recommend the following Inside HigherEd column by Chris Geary.


Free college can spread in states without federal legislation (

Doug Ross has started and managed public charters schools in Michigan. His work currently focuses on learning how to turn around failing urban high schools. Doug has also had a distinguished public service career. During President Clinton’s first term, he was Assistant U.S. Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training; he previously served as Michigan’s Director of Commerce and a member of the Michigan Senate; and he most recently served as a senior adviser to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

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The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.