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Gretchen Whitmer: Expand Michigan Reconnect program for community college

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the Legislature on Wednesday night during her annual State of the State address. (Screenshot)
  • Michigan Reconnect reduces the costs to attend an in-district community college 
  • Gov. Whitmer wants to lower the minimum age for the program from 25 to 21 
  • A Reconnect expansion could encourage more people to get a degree or certificate after years of declining enrollment

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged lawmakers Wednesday to expand the state’s tuition-free community college program known as Michigan Reconnect by lowering its minimum age from 25 years old to 21.   

Over 113,000 Reconnectors have been accepted, and we want that number to grow,” Whitmer said in her annual State of the State address in Lansing. “Let’s unleash opportunity for our young people while offering companies the skilled, hardworking talent they need to succeed here in Michigan.”

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The program pays for in-district community college tuition for adults to pursue an associate degree or skills certificate

In order to qualify currently, an applicant must be aged 25 or older. In addition, they have lived in Michigan for at least a year, have a high school diploma or equivalency certificate and not previously earned an associate or bachelor’s degree. 

More than 24,000 people have enrolled in a program and there are more than 2,000 people who have completed a degree or skills certificate, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday. 

“We’re really excited, it’s a great opportunity to get more adults into a program that is going to have a big impact,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a group that works to increase college access for Michigan students, particularly among low-income students, students of color and first-generation students.

It’s unclear just how many people would be eligible for the program if it were to be expanded. Michigan has roughly 520,000 people who are 21-24 years old, according to U.S. Census data. Though a sizable portion of this group would be ineligible because they have already received a college degree.

Whitmer has made receiving a degree or training certificate after high school a cornerstone of her policy agenda, citing years of studies showing that people who obtain post-high school degrees are far more likely to earn higher incomes.  

At her first State of State address in 2019, Whitmer proposed a goal of having 60 percent of working age adults with a post high school degree or certificate by 2030. 

Reconnect is one of several measures the state has taken to lower the cost of higher education. In May, the Republican-controlled Senate proposed a new scholarship program for high school graduates. Lawmakers approved the Michigan Achievement Scholarship program in September and Gov. Whitmer signed it into law

Education advocates praised the proposed expansion on Wednesday. 

“Michigan’s community colleges are thrilled to hear the Governor’s continued commitment to continuing to expand postsecondary learning opportunities for our residents,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association and a former advisor to the governor. 

“We are ready to work with the Governor and the Legislature to expand the Michigan Reconnect program to younger adults and make progress toward the state’s goal of having 60 percent of Michigan adults with a credential or college degree by 2030.” 

This is not the first time leaders have tried to expand the Reconnect program. 

Late last year, Whitmer signed two bills that made changes to the Reconnect program. The original language of the bills had also included expanding the program but that provision was taken out of the bills before they passed.  

At a September appropriations committee meeting where the bills were discussed, then-Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, said that without appropriations set aside for that expansion, it made sense to take out the expansion from the bills. 

“As I say, I’m supportive of the concept but I also acknowledge that there’s pieces to that beyond just the policy bills on the appropriations side, given the cost implications for that expansion,” Frederick said at the time. 

Johnson, of the community college group, told Bridge that then-Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, then the chair of the appropriations committee, did not support the expansion of the program down to age 21. Albert, who is now in the state Senate, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

But Rep. Andrew Fink, R-Adams Township, criticized Whitmer’s call for expanding Reconnect in a statement, calling it “unrealistic” and “reckless.”

“Michigan’s Reconnect program was never intended to fulfill such heavy-handed promises,” Fink, who sits on the House Appropriations committee, said Wednesday. “It was meant to provide targeted scholarships only to adult learners returning to school to earn their first associate degree or skilled trades certification.”

About 54.6 percent of the high school class of 2020 enrolled in college within six months of graduating, the lowest the state had experienced in at least a decade as the pandemic descended on the state. The rate inched even lower the following year.

Fewins-Bliss, of the college access group, said those students struggled to find their place in the workforce too. Lowering the Reconnect age eligibility could mean some of those students choose to pursue a degree as they turn 21 rather than possibly waiting until they are 25. 

“It would be really nice to have something to bring them back to the institutions,” Fewins-Bliss said. 

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