The Whitmer administration has birthed multiple programs since the state of the pandemic aimed at providing financial incentives to get adults in college to start or finish degrees. Photo By: (Shutterstock)

By: Bridge Michigan

Over 70,000 Michigan residents have applied for a state program to attend community college tuition-free, granting thousands a chance to head back to the classroom or enhance their skills without burning a hole in their wallet.

The state hoped 60,000 residents would apply to the Michigan Reconnect program before Memorial Day. That metric was met in mid-March, perhaps a sign of the appeal of affordable education and job training.

Another 120,000 Michigan residents who were frontline workers in the early months of the pandemic applied for a separate free tuition program in 2020, bringing the total who could get a big boost toward a college degree to 190,000.

“Providing hardworking Michiganders with the skills to fill a high-demand career puts more money in their pockets and creates a better quality of life for them and their families,” said Susan Corbin, acting director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity in a statement on Friday.

Michigan residents are eligible to apply for Michigan Reconnect if they are 25 or older, have lived in the state for at least a year, possess a high school diploma or an equivalent, and have not completed a college degree. Over 4.1 million adults are eligible for the program which, starting on Feb. 2, offered to cover the costs of community college and up to $1,500 in scholarships for in-demand job training certificate programs, such as in manufacturing, healthcare or business management.

Michigan Reconnect isn’t a blanket guarantee of free tuition for all applicants. Those who do not live in a community college district or intend to enroll in a community college outside of their district may be able to attend at a discounted rate under support from the program or through Futures for Frontliners, but not be free.

It’s unclear how many among the applicants to the two programs will ultimately enroll in a postsecondary education, said Camara Lewis, spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The earliest the program’s funding can be applied is for the upcoming summer semester. 

There’s some indication, though, of what enrollment could be among the Reconnect applicants. In the Futures for Frontliners program, which similarly offered tuition-free community college to Michigan residents who worked in an essential industry, such as at hospitals or in grocery stores, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 120,000 signed up before the program’s deadline of Dec. 31, 2020. Among those, about 15,000 have already enrolled in college.

Lewis said the state is encouraged by the current number of residents enrolled but recognized the need to further inform applicants about the next steps, which include filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), enrolling in a community college, and seeking additional state support resources through the Michigan Works! and MI Bridges programs.

“Those are the wraparound services … that we’re trying to continue to bolster and push to make sure that the folks who do go ahead and enroll feel supported in completing their educational journey,” Lewis said.

Michigan Reconnect is financed through $30 million in state funding that was introduced in the Whitmer administration’s 2021 budget and adopted with bipartisan support. The funding covers the cost of tuition and mandatory fees after federal Pell grants for low-income students are applied.

Affordable, post-high school education programs remain important in Michigan because the state is below the national average in the percentage of adults with college degrees, undercutting efforts to offer high-paying jobs and expand the economy. Roughly half (49.1 percent) of adults in the state have a post-secondary degree (a two- or four-year college degree or training certification), which is almost three percentage points below the national average of 51.9 percent.

Several four-year universities have also offered opportunities to enroll without paying tuition, though these options are more limited than the state’s approach.

Michigan Reconnect supports Gov. Whitmer’s Sixty by 30 initiative, which aims to up the state’s percentage of adults with a skill certification or college degree to 60 percent by 2030.

“A talented and skilled workforce helps build a strong economy and puts Michigan on the map as a place for opportunity,” Whitmer said. “I’m proud of the hardworking men and women who have taken the leap to continue their education and I look forward to ongoing bipartisan work with lawmakers to connect millions of Michiganders to the resources they need to succeed in a good-paying career.”

Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, praised the programs for helping develop a skilled workforce in the state, but said more needed to be done to support students once they are able to attend tuition-free. A number of studies have shown that low-income students and students of color are more likely to drop out of college and may need more support to graduate. 

“A lot of these students will require a lot more support than the institution’s currently have on hand,” Fewins-Bliss said. “These folks have barriers that have been put up by society, by their life, frankly, that just make it difficult to get over the finish line … The next play is that we need to invest in the systems to support them and make sure that they can be successful.”

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