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Opinion | Reconnecting adults to college is right move for Michigan’s workforce

Adult learners who attend college as nontraditional students are seeking one thing: a better job that equips them to provide a brighter future for their family. 

Reconnecting adults to education and training is a vital step for strengthening Michigan’s workforce and attracting potential employers to relocate to the state, rather than focusing on tax incentives. The advancement in robotics, artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing requires new skills.

Mike Krause headshot
Mike Krause has led adult-learner initiatives in multiple states. He is the former executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and founding director of Tennessee Promise.

Michigan smartly recognized the opportunity to start small during the pandemic with the Frontliners scholarship and now Michigan Reconnect. Shifting Michigan’s focus to programs like Michigan Reconnect, which offers an unparalleled opportunity to attend community college tuition-free, plays a crucial role in providing adults with the opportunity to enhance their skills and contribute to a stronger workforce. 

Projects that shift the focus primarily to strengthening the workforce assure CEOs that if they set up shop in that state, there would be a pipeline of qualified employees. 

This shift led to a raft of higher-education initiatives that put Tennessee on the forefront of the national discussion regarding college costs and economic opportunity. First, there was Tennessee Promise, a program that focused on traditional high school students entering college directly after graduation. Then came Tennessee Reconnect, a program that, like Michigan Reconnect, focuses on adult learners. Much as we did in the Volunteer State, successfully implementing Michigan Reconnect will deliver opportunity to adults that have often been overlooked by traditional financial-aid programs

The good news is community colleges provide an array of pathways for an adult to enhance their skills and enter the workforce at a much higher wage. The better news for Michiganders is that there is a pathway for adults to enter one of these pathways tuition-free via Michigan Reconnect.

The population headwinds facing Michigan right now are well documented, and the work of the Growing Michigan Together Council over the last year has laid out a clear course for the state to reverse the out-migration trend.

So, what now?

First, while the Reconnect program offers adults an opportunity to enroll at community college tuition-free, we cannot take for granted that adults are aware of this. In fact, Americans making below $50,000 a year can go to some colleges for free already due to the Pell grant. But they don't know that. Michigan Reconnect creates an exceptional opportunity, but the work ahead must ensure potential students are aware of that opportunity. This will require a broad public engagement strategy to deliver the Reconnect message in non-traditional venues.

Second, a financial aid pathway to enroll in college, like Michigan Reconnect, is an incredible enrollment incentive, but it does not ensure success. Colleges in Michigan and across the nation must reconfigure to serve the needs of adult learners. This includes interventions such as one-stop shops, student support services being open during non-business hours, and in some cases, child care.

Finally, for decades, most higher-education policies have measured success in terms of degrees conferred. I certainly agree with this as a central metric, but we can't stop there. What ultimately matters for these working adults is their ability to get a better job and a better salary. This requires employer partnerships that can serve as advisers regarding curriculum, resources for placing interns, and ultimately, hiring opportunities for new graduates.

These steps all address the practical challenges adult students face and will move Michigan’s economy forward in a dramatic way.

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