Free College Offer Lures Thousands

State officials in Michigan expected a big response when they launched a free college program for adults earlier this year. They got lots of takers, all right -- 67,000 and counting.

May 5, 2021
 
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks in Southfield, Mich.

Johnathon Young thought about going to college on and off over the years, but money was always a factor.

Laying down tiles and floorboards for a living meant paying tuition would be stretch. The work also took a physical toll on him.

“It’s really tough on the body,” Young said.

He was ready for a long-term career change when his wife saw an online ad touting a program to enroll in community college for free.

This summer, Young, 36, will be a first-time college student, compliments of a state program designed for adults like him who've never attended or completed college.

The Michigan Reconnect program, launched in February by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, allows state residents age 25 and older to attend local community colleges tuition-free, as long as they have a high school diploma or equivalent and didn’t already graduate from college.

It took Young an hour to fill out the application, and a few days later he was accepted to Henry Ford College in Dearborn, a mile from his house.

Young’s reaction was, “OK, it would be pretty dumb not to do this.”

He isn’t alone. State labor department officials expected demand to be high when they developed the Reconnect program. They estimated they would get 60,000 applicants by Memorial Day, but more than 67,000 people have applied so far, and more applications are coming in every day.

“The word ‘free’ is a pretty powerful motivating concept,” said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “And while obviously it’s not completely free, it’s tuition-free,” he said referring to the total cost of college, including expenses such as textbooks, transportation and other costs.

The program requires all students to apply for federal financial aid in order to participate in the last-dollar program, which means the state will pay the remainder of tuition costs not covered by federal grants. Once accepted, students have four years to earn their degrees. The program also includes the Michigan Skills Scholarship, which offers students up to $1,500 toward tuition at a trade school or program.

Young, the flooring installer, is among the 16 percent of applicants attending college for the first time. Just over 50 percent of the applicants are returning to college, and about 33 percent of applicants were already enrolled and will have the remainder of their tuition covered.

The program is a part of Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s goal to have 60 percent of the state's residents earn a skill certificate or college degree by 2030.

Michigan Reconnect offers a clear benefit to adult learners, but the push is also driven by local labor market demands, said Susan Corbin, acting director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. She estimates that there are about 4.1 million people age 25 and older in the state without a college degree.

“In Michigan, we’re just not competitive in the region,” Corbin said. “We’re not competitive with states around us because we need a more talented workforce. We hear from so many local employers that they have jobs going unfilled because they don’t have people with the right skills. That absolutely is the impetus for the program. We are looking at where there are in-demand jobs, where there are jobs going unfilled and where do we think there will be jobs in the future.”

The Michigan Reconnect program website provides data and other information about jobs that are most in demand in the state, including a breakdown by geographical area so students can see the most common job openings near where they live and the average pay. For example, around Wayne County, where Henry Ford College is located, there are 1,055 annual openings for automotive service technicians and mechanics and 833 annual openings for computer user support specialists.

The program also offers a glimmer of hope for community college budgets strained by the pandemic and economic downturn, which made it harder to retain students struggling with online learning and to recruit new students who may have lost jobs or were struggling financially.

Community colleges across the country underwent staggering enrollment drops this academic year, an 11.3 percent decrease on average nationally this spring compared to spring 2020, according to the latest National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Michigan was no exception. Enrollment for community colleges in the state fell by 13.2 percent in fall 2020 from the previous fall.

The state's Reconnect program is “bandaging the wound” to community colleges, said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, an advocacy organization for higher education access in the state.

“When you’re looking at a 10 percent cut in your student base, that can be existential for a school,” he said. “This might be a way to help get them through this pandemic.”

Enrollment at Kellogg Community College in southern Michigan dropped about 15 percent in the fall compared to fall 2019. College officials made it a priority to make sure applicants actually completed their federal financial aid forms and enrolled. As a part of that effort, Eric Greene, vice president for strategy, relations and communications, and Nikki Jewell, dean of enrollment services and financial aid, held virtual informational “road shows” on Zoom with local partners such as school districts and childcare programs to raise awareness about Michigan Reconnect. Enrollment administrators at Kellogg project an enrollment increase this upcoming fall.

“We’re starting to see some indicators that we’re starting to claw our way back in terms of regaining some of that loss in enrollment,” Greene said.

Michigan community college administrators credit both the Michigan Reconnect program and its predecessor, Futures for Frontliners, which offers a tuition-free education in a degree program at a local community college to essential workers in the state who worked in grocery stores, restaurants, waste management, public transportation and other in-person jobs during the pandemic. Applications for Futures for Frontliners closed on Dec. 31 last year, while the Michigan Reconnect application period is ongoing.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College received almost 4,500 applications for Futures for Frontliners and about 2,500 applications through Michigan Reconnect.

“Anecdotally, every call that comes into the college is about Reconnect,” said Alisha Cederberg, associate dean of student experience at Kalamazoo Valley. “There’s a big appetite for this in the state of Michigan.”

Lori Przymusinski, vice chancellor for student services at Oakland Community College, northwest of Detroit, is excited about the program but is unsure if the influx of adult students will be enough to make up for enrollment losses. While the program may be a “game changer” for students, she worries about those starting or restarting community college careers online as the pandemic continues.

“We have students who have never attended college or students who are coming back after a gap of time, and it may not be the most desirable way for them to learn in a virtual environment,” she said. “A lot of these students have never taken an online class, so they don’t know all the way how to navigate.”

That said, Przymusinski and others are confident their institutions are prepared to support the influx of adult students who make up a significant portion of community college students.

Nonetheless, some institutions are undergoing changes to prepare for the wave of new students.

Lake Michigan College in southwestern Michigan, for example, is shifting recruiters who also work with high school students to now focus on the new adult learners.

“It’s really about adapting to what’s walking in the door,” said Jeremy Schaeffer, director of admissions and recruitment at Lake Michigan.

Kellogg Community College is arranging an “interventions strategies work group” of administrators to prepare for the new students and ensure they understand the intricacies of the program and have the support services they need once enrolled.

The program also requires community colleges to have certain services in place, notably, remedial education courses that don't delay students from earning college credit. The colleges have until Jan. 1, 2022, to reform their developmental education courses.

Oakland Community College was already in the process of developing such courses, Przymusinski said, but meeting that deadline may be a heavier lift for community colleges that haven’t started a remedial education reform process.

Hansen, the president of the community college association, said the widespread reform will be a great “side effect or side benefit” of the program.

“If we can really use this to incentivize colleges to reform their developmental education practices in a way that’s best for students, I think ultimately that’s what everybody wants,” he said.

The central benefit of the program is that the low price tag is motivating students who might not have considered college, or who even ruled it out as an option, to work toward a degree.

Free tuition "changes behavior and it changes the conversation," Hansen said. "It shows that there are a lot of different barriers for people to complete a postsecondary degree, but if you take some of those barriers away, people are eager and they’re ready and they’re hungry for this."

The program’s advocates are already looking anxiously toward next year and hoping the next state budget will again fund the $30 million program. The governor proposed continued funding, but the state Legislature has yet to include the program in its budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year.

“We hope that in the end we’ll have money to support this,” Hansen said. “Otherwise, this could be a real disaster for students who have now started and are anticipating their money to be there. Presumably, colleges probably don’t have the resources themselves to make this up. The program would exist in statute, but if there’s no money to support it, the assumption is students wouldn’t be able to get their tuition paid for.”

Corbin, the labor department director, is confident the funding will continue.

It’s early in the budgeting process, and “Michigan Reconnect has such widespread bipartisan support,” she said.

As Young prepares to start his associate's degree program in the summer, he's seeing comments on Facebook disparaging the program, complaining about freeloaders. He finds that line of thinking “silly.”

“Everyone wins in this scenario,” he said. People are getting an education and access to better jobs. “I get people in debt being mad about paying money. But don’t be mad about people trying to make themselves better.”

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