Ben DeGrow may be the only person ever to use a college scholarship from the United Auto Workers to attend Hillsdale College, an incubator of American conservatism.
“I was counted as a dependent by the UAW,” said DeGrow, whose father was a pipefitter for General Motors and a second-generation union member. “I may have been the best investment they ever made,” he said with a quiet laugh.
DeGrow is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. He grew up in northern Oakland County, Michigan.
“I was kind of a typical high school conservative, really interested in politics and listening to Rush Limbaugh and reading National Review,” he said. “I learned about Hillsdale’s philosophy and decided that’s where I’d attend.”
He appreciated the college’s liberal arts emphasis and was drawn to Hillsdale’s distinguished history during the Civil War, an era that still fascinates the loyal Yankee and Lincoln aficionado.
“I really loved to read and write, so I decided to become a history professor,” he said. But after earning a master’s degree at Penn State University, he returned to Michigan to get married.
Ben met his future wife, Marya, at a College Republicans meeting while both were still at Hillsdale. The two were married in 2002 and moved to Colorado, where Marya had a job with the Independence Institute. When the institute needed some help on a research project, Ben took a full-time position in education policy.
“You could say I married into the free-market movement,” he said.
Ben joined the Mackinac Center in 2015 and was immediately thrust into a fight to keep state lawmakers from giving the public school district in Detroit more control over charter schools. Charter school advocates prevailed.
Ben has compiled reports that rank every public elementary, middle and high school in Michigan. He has examined the disconnect between higher spending on schools and academic results.
The biggest battle in education policy, he believes, is upon us now. The Let Kids Learn initiative would provide students funding for private tutoring, trade schools or K-12 private schools. The idea took off after the COVID panic made clear how dysfunctional Michigan public schools have become.
“For years, I’d talk to national groups about Michigan, but we were kind of written off because we have the most anti-private school choice constitutional amendment in the country,” he said. “That’s begun to change rapidly.”
Ben and Marya have three daughters who are homeschooled, ranging from 10 to 16 years old.