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Slowly and steadily, Michigan has become a national leader in making free college a reality for thousands of residents statewide. In her State of the State address last month, Governor Gretchen Whitmer outlined her plans to make community college tuition-free for all high school graduates across the state. While the governor’s plans will require state legislative action, Whitmer’s gradual approach to implementing free college offers important lessons for states across the country.

Since 2020, Michigan has launched multiple initiatives that provide some residents with tuition-free options to attend community college. Michigan Reconnect, a program aimed at increasing college attainment among adult learners, provides free tuition at in-district community colleges for state residents over the age of 25. Central to Whitmer’s goal of increasing the percentage of residents with higher education credentials to 60 percent by 2030, Michigan Reconnect passed the state Legislature with bipartisan support shortly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s second free-tuition program, Futures for Frontliners, was born out of the pandemic itself. Designed to support those whose jobs were designated as essential at the beginning of the pandemic, Futures for Frontliners allowed thousands of front-line workers the opportunity to attend community college tuition-free.

Last year, state lawmakers continued their efforts to make college more affordable by approving the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which can provide up to $5,500 per student per year at any of Michigan’s public universities and colleges. This program effectively doubled the state’s investment in financial aid.

Between Michigan Reconnect, Futures for Frontliners and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, Whitmer—and Michigan’s Legislature—could have felt satisfied in their efforts to enhance college affordability. But, recognizing the need to continue building momentum to reduce financial barriers to higher education, Whitmer has now announced plans to make community college tuition-free for all Michiganders regardless of age (a proposal I said I hoped the state would enact in a piece I wrote last year).

Initially, I critiqued Michigan’s efforts as a piecemeal approach that was insufficient to address the root causes of the high cost of higher education. But it’s now clear that Whitmer has strategically expanded bipartisan support for increasing investment in higher education. Rather than trying to push a comprehensive yet expensive and unrealistically bold free-college program, Michigan has successfully passed multiple efforts that together will make free community college a reality for the vast majority of Michiganders.

The success of the state’s ability to build additional free college programs on this foundation has important considerations for other purple states that require bipartisan support for any and all legislation. First, Michigan shows that starting incrementally can be an important strategy to move forward legislation that can reduce the cost of college—or completely cover the cost of tuition—for at least some population of people in a given state. Whether it be making college free for adults over the age of 25, for veterans or for people who work in a given profession, efforts that make tuition free for a defined group of people can shift public sentiment on the importance of making college affordable and can provide states with bipartisan avenues that make progress toward an ultimate goal of a universally free college system.

Second, Michigan’s efforts show that gradually expanding free college programs can be key toward building momentum to a more robust free college system. While gradually expanding programs can be an important step in building political support for free college, it can also allow states to set up the necessary systems and staffing to ensure they can handle an increase in enrollment that stems from making tuition free. Recent trends from Massachusetts demonstrate the administrative importance of gradually rolling out free college so that states have adequate time to prepare for an influx of students.

Most importantly, Michigan’s gradual expansion of programs that reduce the cost of higher education show that it’s possible to advance educational equity and reduce financial barriers to attending and completing higher education at the state level with bipartisan support. States can no longer defer action on making college tuition-free by claiming it to be too expensive or politically challenging to come to fruition. Michigan shows us that purple states can pass meaningful actions to make college free. Let’s hope that other states learn these lessons and move similar legislation, even as federal legislation to make college more affordable continues to stall.

Chris Geary is a senior consultant on the Alvarez & Marsal public sector services team, where he focuses on transforming public education organizations. Previously, he worked as a senior policy analyst at New America. He received his master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a bachelor’s in public policy from Duke University.

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