Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reorganized Michigan’s education bureaucracy last week.

The Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential focuses on preschool access and on higher education. Part of its charge, according to the executive order that created it, is “to ensure that every Michigander has the skill certificate or degree they need to prosper.”

The “every Michigander” portion of that may prove to be a challenge.

As the number of college students in Michigan has plummeted over the last decade or so, the numbers of low-income students and Black students have fallen much faster.

The number of Michigan college students eligible for federal Pell grants, which go largely to students from low-income families, fell by 52 percent between 2011 and 2021, according to federal data compiled by Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities. It’s the largest drop in the country, both numerically and percentagewise.

The number of Black students fell by 48 percent, second only to Illinois.

Those drops are significant but not quite so dire as they sound. The overall number of undergraduates in the state fell by 33 percent over the same time period, partly because Michigan’s college-age population is smaller than it used to be and partly because fewer students are going to college.

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When it comes to low-income students, the University of Michigan has bucked the trend. The number of Pell Grant recipients enrolled in Ann Arbor jumped by nearly 30 percent between 2016 and 2021.

It’s likely that the Go Blue Guarantee contributed to that. The program, announced in the summer of 2017, The program offers free tuition to students from families making $75,000 a year or less.

And “free” is a clear and compelling pitch.

“That kind of messaging really helps families who are more economically precarious figure out whether it makes sense to go,” said Matt Diemer, an associate professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan who has studied how students make choices about college.

The more usual process, with complicated cost calculators, can be intimidatingly difficult. Diemer went through it with his own son last year.

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