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Michigan’s new, free community college program: What you need to know

In what was described as the largest effort in state history to increase college attainment, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday unveiled a program promising free community college tuition to residents 25 and older.

Whitmer said about 4.1 million of Michigan’s 10 million residents qualify for Michigan Reconnect. Just under 3 million of those who qualify are of typical working age, 25-64, according to Census data.

“All Michiganders deserve a pathway to a good-paying job, whether they choose to pursue a college degree, technical certificate, or an apprenticeship,” Whitmer said during a virtual news conference Tuesday announcing the program.

Related:  Michigan essential workers get free tuition. Soon, many others can, too.

The Whitmer administration has a goal of increasing the percentage of working-age adults with college degrees or certificates from 49 percent to 60 percent by 2030. The current national average is 51 percent.

Here’s what to know about the program, which is costing the state $30 million:

 What is Michigan Reconnect?

Launched Tuesday, Michigan Reconnect pays community college tuition and mandatory fees for Michigan residents over the age of 25. 

The program also offers scholarships of up to $1,500 to help cover the cost of tuition at more than 70 private training schools with 120 programs that offer certificates in high-demand careers in industries such as manufacturing, construction, information technology, healthcare or business management.

Who is eligible?

You must be a Michigan resident for at least a year, have a high school diploma or equivalent and not have previously earned a college degree. Current students qualify, as well as those who’ve never stepped foot on a college campus or who stopped taking classes before earning a degree.

Why is this important?

Michigan is below the national average in the percentage of adults with college degrees, which hobbles the state’s attempts to attract business and suppresses incomes.

More education typically means higher salaries. Nationally, high school grads earned, on average, $38,792 in 2019, compared to $46,124 for those with an associate’s degree and $64,896 for those with a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One in four Michigan adults have some college credits but no degree. Making community college free could entice adults who keep putting off finishing a degree to return to campus.

“This is a big deal,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that works to improve college access and affordability. “It’s incredible that folks who felt they were blocked out of high education now have an opportunity.”

How many people are likely to apply?

A similar program limited just to pandemic essential workers, called Futures for Frontliners, drew 120,000 applications. This broader program likely will attract hundreds of thousands of applicants, said Fewins-Bliss.

Will going to college now cost nothing?

The program pays for tuition and mandatory fees. Students likely will still have to pay for books, as well as things like transportation to and from class (if classes are held in-person).

Do I have to apply immediately?

Applications began Tuesday. There is no cut-off date.

How long does the benefit last?

Both full- and part-time students qualify for Michigan Reconnect. Students qualify for the benefit for up to four years following their enrollment in their first class using Michigan Reconnect funding.

Who’s paying for this?

The average community college tuition and mandated fees in Michigan is about $4,000 per year, but the cost varies wildly between students because many community college students take only one or two classes at a time.

The state has set aside $30 million for the program this budget year. The majority of tuition costs likely will be picked up by federal Pell grants, which is money for college that doesn’t have to be paid back, available to low- and moderate-income families. 

Pell grants cover up to $6,195 a year for students in families with adjusted gross incomes of $26,000 or less. Students earning up to $60,000 qualify for smaller Pell grants. 

Students who don’t qualify for Pell grants because they earn above $60,000, or who have college costs beyond what Pell will pay, will have the difference paid through state-funded Michigan Reconnect.

Community colleges can help students till out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines eligibility for Pell grants.

When will these funds be available to pay for tuition?

Those who apply soon could qualify for tuition payments this summer.

Will Michigan Reconnect pay for two years of a four-year university rather than community college?

The program is only available for students at state community colleges and some professional training centers. Students can, though, earn credits at a community college that can be transferred to a four-year school.

Has this been done in other places?

Tennessee has operated a similar program since 2014. There, between 16,000 and 17,000 students enroll in college annually through the free-tuition program.

Is this a program that will disappear when a new administration takes over the governor’s office?

Michigan Reconnect may be safer than some other initiatives from the Democratic governor because it has bipartisan support. 

The program is funded for this year, but Whitmer was joined at her announcement Tuesday by Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, who heads the committee that would appropriate future funds for Michigan Reconnect.

“This will take a high priority” on his committee, Horn promised. “The ability to find highly skilled and capable employees is more difficult than ever.”

John Walsh, CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, also praised the initiative. “It is in every sense a win-win for everybody,” Walsh said at the press conference. “It allows our citizens to skill up and get promotions and allows employers to fill positions.”

Tennessee Reconnect has similarly broad, bipartisan support.

What’s the biggest concern about the program?

Getting adults into college is good, but it doesn’t mean they’ll earn a degree.

Lou Glazer, president of Ann Arbor-based think tank Michigan Future, warned that tuition is only one barrier to degree attainment. “A lot of adults, the reason they don’t complete are other life issues, they’re raising kids, working a job. So you have to structure a program so they can lead their lives.

“Second, there are real financial costs beyond tuition, like books and living expenses. And third, a lot of people are not ready academically to go back to school, and schools are not terrific at taking people who have academic foundational issues and getting them to a degree.

“You have to address all the issues (for the program) to be successful,” Glazer said.

How do I apply?

You can apply here.

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