College advocate tapped by Whitmer as education adviser

In the midst of a blizzard on the night of Feb. 12, Brandy Johnson sat alone, crying, in a St. Ignace casino.

She is probably not the first person to cry in a casino. But she may hold the distinction of being the first to do so because of a State of the State address.

Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a group she founded to improve college enrollment and affordability, was supposed to attend the State of the State address that night, the first given by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but was grounded by a snowstorm.

It was while watching the speech in a casino hotel room one floor above the dings and whistles of slot machines that Johnson heard Whitmer announce a goal that 60 percent of Michigan adults would have with post-high school degrees or certificates by 2030 (currently it’s below 45 percent), along with a broad expansion of college financial aid.

Both are initiatives Johnson has promoted for years.

“I was crying.” she confided. “It was a culminating moment of my career.”

That career took another turn Monday when Johnson confirmed she has been appointed policy adviser for the Whitmer administration. A news release on her appointment given to Bridge Monday lists Johnson's title as policy adviser for education and workforce. After publication of this story, a spokesperson for the governor's office told Bridge Johnson's title is postsecondary and workforce adviser.

The appointment of one of the state’s leading advocates for college access and enrollment is the clearest signal yet of the importance Whitmer is placing on college degree attainment and workforce development.

“She (Whitmer) obviously knows that economic development is the same thing as talent development,” Johnson said. “She wants to reverse course on the disinvestment of student financial aid dollars in the past 10 years… where financial aid has either been cut or not keeping pace with inflation.”

Johnson brings deep policy experience and a pragmatic record to the governor’s office. No think tank wonk or political operative, Johnson instead has a reputation as a “get stuff done” person, said Michelle Richard, vice president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

MCAN recruits and trains recent college graduates to work as college advisers in low-income and rural high schools around the state. This year, there are 103 advisers in Michigan high schools either directly connected to MCAN or collaborating with the organization through Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

“Brandy has been the force behind Michigan’s college access movement,” said Patrick O’Connor, associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools. “She has built infrastructure, focused on equity, and modeled collaboration.”

MCAN works to increase the number of high schoolers who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which lets students and families know how much aid they’re eligible for. Johnson also has been the driving force to establish almost 30 LCANs (Local College Access Networks) across Michigan, by putting community, school, philanthropic and business leaders together in the same room to figure out how to increase college enrollment in their hometowns.

“She’s the one getting stuff done,” Richard said. “That’s what MCAN is known for. If you make an investment in MCAN, it is going to take your dollar and do great things for kids.

“They’re going to talk about big issues that affect the state,” Richard said, “but at the same time, they’re going to move the needle. That action-orientation is going to be a good thing for the state.”

Her appointment also may offer hope of bipartisanship – something the Democratic governor has promised and which may be challenging with a Republican-controlled Legislature. Johnson served on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission and on a higher education commission headed by Democrat former State Board of Education Chair John Austin. She’s also worked closely with business leaders across the state, as well as Michigan foundations.

“She’s the best at convincing people that her issue is their issue,” Richard said.

Johnson was the first in her family to attend college. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University and a master’s degree in public policy from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She taught third grade in a low-income neighborhood of Las Vegas as a Teach for America member before joining the staff of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm as a college access coordinator.

Johnson founded MCAN in 2010 and has served as its executive director ever since.

“Gov. Whitmer's appointment of Brandy Johnson sends a clear message that the Governor understands that today, economic opportunity for Michiganders requires an education past high school; and that the success of our state's economy depends on helping many more people earn an essential postsecondary degree or other credential,” Austin told Bridge in an email.

“No one is more knowledgeable about effective approaches to make our pre-K through postsecondary learning system work for more people, and ... close opportunity gaps based on race, income or accidents of birth.”

Johnson is the third high-ranking adviser appointed to the Whitmer administration with roots in Michigan education. Policy director and education adviser Emily Laidlaw formerly worked as director of government relations at the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators. Doug Ross, founder of University Prep charter schools in Detroit, is a senior adviser.

Johnson will start her new post March 11.

“Public policy has always been my passion,” Johnson said. “I think I can bring a student-centric lens to the governor’s office.”

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