Michigan is now offering free college tuition. Here's how to apply

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday launched Michigan's largest effort to date to pay for college tuition for residents 25 or older who don't have a degree.

The $30 million Michigan Reconnect program will pay the cost of tuition for eligible adults who want to pursue an associate degree or skills certificate at their in-district community college or a $1,500 scholarship to be used at more than 70 private training schools that offer training certificates.

An estimated 4.1 million residents are eligible for the program, state officials say, and the application process opened Tuesday. 

To qualify, students must meet the minimum age requirement, have lived in the state for a year or longer and have a high school diploma but not a college degree.

"All Michiganders deserve a pathway to a good-paying job, whether they choose to pursue a college degree, technical certificate, or an apprenticeship,” said Whitmer, who was joined by a bipartisan group of legislators in making the announcement during a virtual news conference. “Michigan Reconnect will connect thousands of Michiganders to good-paying jobs and connect businesses with the talent they need to thrive in their communities. I’m proud of the hard work that has gone into creating this historic new opportunity and look forward to continuing bipartisan work with lawmakers toward our goal of ensuring 60% of Michiganders will have a postsecondary degree by 2030.”

Michigan Reconnect is part of the Whitmer administration's Sixtyby30 initiative, which has set a goal of arming 60% of the state's residents with a degree or skilled trades certificate by 2030. Currently, 41% of Michigan’s working-age residents have an associate degree or additional higher education, ranking Michigan 31st nationally for the percentage of residents' who have attained higher education.

The strategy is to train residents with skills for high-paying, high-demand jobs, increase the state's talent pool to attract more business and improve residents' incomes, financial stability and quality of life. 

Michigan Reconnect builds on another state initiative to train workers, a job skills hub and the Futures for Frontliners program, the first effort in the nation to offer free college education to those who worked and provided essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic as others sheltered in place and worked from home. The program was announced in April, more than 120,000 residents applied by the December deadline and 82,000 were accepted into the program.

But not everyone is an essential worker or had a job that allowed them to work from home.

That's why the Michigan Reconnect program was created for residents like Shabaka Bailey, a 25-year-old Lansing resident and father of two who lost two jobs at employers that shut down during the pandemic.

Bailey, who spoke during the press conference, said over the years he has worked jobs in the fast food, automotive manufacturing and carpentry industries and considered going to Lansing Community College. But he said he couldn't afford it and still support his 5-year-old son, Josiah, and 1-year-old daughter, Journi.

“The Michigan Reconnect program is a great opportunity to pursue my dream now,” said Bailey. "I plan on enrolling in LCC and (beginning) the aviation program. I want to become an aviation technician and work on airplanes and the engines. I think that is a good career for me that will follow and allow me to make something of myself."

Several organizations have pledged to promote awareness of the program, including the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

John Walsh, MMA president and CEO, said manufacturing represents the largest sector of the state's economy, producing 20% of the economic output and employing over 500,000 workers.

"What unites all of manufacturing is the need for talent," said Walsh. "It's a desperate need for skilled talent."

While the industry has spent billions of dollars investing in attracting and retaining talent, Walsh said it is not enough. He cited national estimates from the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute showing that while3.5 million jobs are expected to become available in the country by 2027, two million could go unfilled because citizens are not employable.

"There's a skills gap that we need to address," said Walsh. "That's why we are so excited about Michigan Reconnect. It is, in every sense, a win-win for everybody. It gives us economic stability in the state of Michigan and makes us a leader in workforce development and education."

Funding for the program was part of Whitmer’s budget proposal that was approved by the Legislature last fall.

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, said during the press conference the goal of the program is to offer it to all 4.1 million residents who are eligible. Proponents initially sought $60 million for the program. 

"What we are looking at is $30 million per year," said Horn. "We needed to get our toe in the water and get this off the ground."

Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing, added it's important to have goals to meet labor market demands but also to meetthe needs of residents.

"Additional training and education can change lives," said Anthony. "It can actually put folks on a path to prosperity and I am always of the belief that when folks have the tools and resources, people thrive. People want to have a path to the middle class. This is just one step ..."

Talent is the single most important factor in attracting and growing business in the state, said Susan Corbin, acting director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

"Michigan is facing a talent shortage across multiple industries," said Corbin. "We know that in order for Michigan to move forward, and particularly now as we talk about the governor's COVID-19 recovery plan, it's more important than ever that our residents become more educated ...This really provides the opportunity to get them going on the path of an advanced degree or certificate."

Michiganians can submit applications at michigan.gov/Reconnect.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @kimberkoz