Grand Rapids Community College
When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was elected in 2018, 48.9 percent of residents held some type of college degree or credential, according to state data. Soon after taking office, Whitmer announced her signature Sixty by 30 plan, setting a goal for 60 percent of Michiganders to have a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030.
The state’s historically low college attainment rate—the lowest among neighboring states and 37th in the nation—had created a deficit of skilled workers in the state. But Gov. Whitmer’s ambitious plan to change that is in full force and showing small gains so far. Reducing tuition costs has been a big part of that plan.
Michigan Reconnect, which is a last-dollar tuition scholarship for adults 25 and older, launched in 2021. Earlier this month, the state announced a $70 million investment of federal pandemic relief dollars to temporarily reduce the age of eligibility to 21. Additionally, any student who graduated high school in 2023 or later and has an expected family contribution of $25,000 or less is eligible for the newly created Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which can reduce student tuition costs by as much as $5,500 a year for up to five years.
While these tuition assistance programs are still too new to gauge their long term effects, the latest available data shows the state is inching toward its goal with 50.5 percent attainment, but remains below the national average of 53.7 percent. Undergraduate enrollment across the state declined from 515,910 during the 2018–19 academic year to 485,613 during the 2021–22 academic year.
“The pandemic didn’t help,” said Sarah Szurpicki, director of the Office of Sixty by 30. “But it also potentially paved the way for stronger collaboration and attention to this issue. Michigan has had a gap for a long time in who is able to attend college and pursue a postsecondary degree or credential. We’re finally addressing that in meaningful ways.”
This fall, multiple universities in Michigan reported increases in enrollment. And as of earlier this month, 64,600 Michigan residents have completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is up about two percentage points compared to the same time last year.
Among adults with a postsecondary credential in the state, 42 percent are white, 27 percent are Black and 29 percent are Hispanic, according to a 2023 report from the Michigan Center for Adult College Success. Fifty-eight percent of income-strained, working adults do not have a postsecondary credential and only 18.2 percent of working adults who enroll in community college earn a credential within four years.
Although there were sizable gains in the 2010s—national college attainment rose from 38.1 percent in 2009 to 53.7 percent in 2021—the nation is still six percentage points from reaching its goal.
“Michigan was late to the game,” Szurpicki said. “Other states were setting attainment goals well before us. Gov. Whitmer finally brought us to that conversation in a meaningful way.”
Despite a delayed involvement in a formal plan to reduce the cost of college and boost graduation numbers, Michigan had already increased its college attainment rate by 14.8 percent between 2009 and 2021.
Some of those gains, however, can be attributed to the inclusion of workforce certificates (2014) and certifications (2018) in the Lumina Foundation’s definition of a postsecondary credential. The state supplements its Census data on two-and four-year degrees with Lumina’s numbers on certificates that have strong return on investment in the labor market. And those workforce credentials are increasingly valuable in the state, where the demand for workers with technical skills is growing.
“Even in the automobile and manufacturing industries, as the industry transitions to autonomous and electrical vehicles, we’re seeing skills emerge that do require some sort of post-secondary training, but not necessarily a four-year degree,” said Christi Taylor, senior director of talent initiatives at the Detroit Regional Chamber.
To address the state’s massive health care worker shortage, for instance, Henry Ford Health is offering a paid medical assistant apprenticeship program for students who are also completing a medical assistant certificate program through a partnered college. To date, 32 people have graduated and almost all are working full time for the hospital.
Employer-led partnerships like that are crucial to filling jobs in the state—especially by making students aware of viable career paths that aren’t as well-known as nursing or teaching, for example.
“We’re trying to put some formal process in place to help colleges understand where industry needs are because sometimes they don’t speak the same language,” Taylor said. “It’s challenging to help colleges to understand where those industry needs are and it’s challenging for employers to get in front of colleges. We’re trying to play that intermediary role.”
But the state’s history also presents unique challenges to making more progress toward college attainment.
‘Ambivalence’ Toward Higher Ed
Michigan’s booming manufacturing industries made it possible for people to earn a decent living without a college degree for decades.
“Michigan’s enormous success in the industrial age created an ambivalence toward higher education, particularly among families without college educations,” said Doug Ross, a former state senator who served as Whitmer’s senior adviser and helped rally bipartisan support for the Reconnect program. On top of its cultural hurdles, the state’s disinvestment in higher education following the 2008 recession drove up the price of attending college, which programs like Reconnect are working to correct.
“As we are able to increase access by lowering price and overcoming cultural obstacles, we still have the challenge of too many students who start but don’t end up with credentials,” said Ross, who is now a partner with the Diploma Equity Project, which is aimed at boosting college persistence and completion among underrepresented populations.
As of 2021, 51 percent of students who left college without a credential were Black, 35 percent Hispanic, 29 percent White and 19 percent Asian.
Ross and his colleagues interviewed many of those students to inform efforts to address those disparities and learned that their reasons for stopping out of college varied.
“In the case of adults in community college, we’re finding that overwhelmingly the reason they stop out is they encounter a life challenge related to either family or work and they can’t figure out how to deal with that challenge while continuing to stay enrolled in school,” Ross said.
And while most colleges offer a cafeteria of academic supports, such as tutoring, advising and career counseling, students who stop out—especially younger, first-generation students—almost never use them. That disconnect demonstrates the need for a “fundamental redesign of support services to be individualized, relationship-based and proactive, but every institution is a little bit different,” Ross said.
More Than Tuition
At Grand Rapids Community College, the focus over the past few years has turned toward supplementing the state’s tuition assistance initiatives with wraparound supports.
According to a report from the Michigan Center for Adult College Success, 60 percent of adult students face basic needs insecurity.
“Students in community college show a lot of demand for basic needs, whether that’s food insecurities, not being homed, mental health issues, and having to work to pay for school,” said Eric Mullen, dean of student success and retention at Grand Rapids Community College. “Trying to find ways to help students navigate those things and overcome those hurdles before they withdraw has become a focus.”
College administrators created an internal referral network that allows faculty and staff to connect students with the right resources at the first sign of financial, academic or emotional need. A partnership with the state also funds an on-campus social worker who helps students find resources to continue their education.
Officials are also working to help students—including those who may not have previously considered college—align their skills and interests with pathways that can translate to a career.
“Many of our programs are not actually degrees or transfer pathways, but they’re leading students to job training credentials, whether it’s in construction, electrical, welding or in the IT space,” Mullen.
Additionally, more emphasis is being placed on flexibility in how classes are delivered.
“We learned a lot through the pandemic about what we can do,” Mullen said. “We’re having great conversations and planning around how we can take that learning, understand more about the demands and needs of our students, and mirror our course scheduling and modality so they can continue to participate.”
Although Michigan’s higher education system is decentralized, the state is set to open the Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential in the coming months. Once it opens, it will “ensure” resources, data and funds are aligned around a single vision of “building an education system that can support the economy of the future and help anyone make it in Michigan," according to a news release.
The new state agency is yet another part of the effort to reach the state’s 60 percent college attainment goal by 2030.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association. While the Reconnect scholarship was a “game-changer,” the state is also learning that “students need additional financial support for non-tuition costs of attendance.”
That’s especially true for adult students who may need help paying for everything from child care to internet service and transportation in order to stay enrolled.
Last year, the state awarded $6 million to community colleges to award to Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners (a scholarship program for residents without college degrees who worked in essential industries during the pandemic in spring 2020) students in the form of basic-needs support or emergency grants. Eligible students received up to $550 a year to go toward nontuition expenses such as books, childcare, food, internet access and transportation.
In its Fiscal Year 2024 budget, the state carved out $5 million for Reconnect Entry Point Program; $5 million for college and career navigation; $26.3 million for College Success Fund, and $11.5 million for barrier removal.
“The other thing we’re considering is looking at the design of our scholarships,” Johnson said. Right now, the last-dollar Reconnect program pays for the remaining tuition balance only after students have accessed other funding sources such as federal financial aid and Pell Grants. A first-dollar program, however, would allow students to use Reconnect money to cover all of their tuition costs and potentially use other grants and aid for basic needs.
Johnson is hopeful state officials will ask themselves this question moving forward: “Should our scholarships actually be first-dollar instead of last-dollar for our neediest students if we really want to close equity gaps?”