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Michiganders over 25 seeking a two-year degree can now seek tuition assistance through the Michigan Reconnect program in an important test of the power of free education.

EAST CHINA, Mich.—Molly Metheny talked to The ‘Gander in September about how the crushing burden of her student debt has made her lose hope for the future. Originally graduating from Western Michigan University, Metheny changed her career path and went back to St. Clair Community College for its prestigious two-year nursing program.

Metheny carries a burden of $70,000 in student loan debt and still is paying tuition. At 31 and with a higher degree than the one she’s currently pursuing, Metheny is what’s considered a “nontraditional student,” many of whom attend community colleges in Michigan. And for nontraditional students in situations like Metheny’s, Michigan has a new program to help.

Tuesday, Michigan launched the Michigan Reconnect program that passed as part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget in October. The program, now accepting applications, offers tuition-free assistance from adults 25 and older to earn an associate’s degree or postsecondary certificate at a community college or private training school.

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While Reconnect doesn’t apply to Metheny, who already has a degree, it serves as an important test of the economic impact of making two-year college free for the future.

Community colleges and their nontraditional students, particularly those like Metheny who have a degree but are training in a new field, are instrumental to the rebuilding of Michigan’s economy during and following the novel coronavirus pandemic, making Michigan Reconnect a vital program to invest in rebuilding Michigan’s economic future. 

Community colleges were well set up to move online, as one-third of community college students take at least one online class already. This situation was explained by Mike Hansen, Michigan Community College Association president, to the legislature’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges in July.

Hansen said that as the pandemic has put people out of work and plans for economic re-engagement have a manufacturing focus, the number of people expected to enroll in community college courses to learn a skilled trade is expected to increase. Hansen pointed to a history of trends following previous economic downturns to support this claim.

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“If this recession and these unemployment rates are like past recessions, we know that enrollments at a community college will increase as people who have lost their jobs and have been separated because of the pandemic from their employment, they will be returning to the community college for new skills,” Hansen said.

That means Michigan Reconnect is poised to grease the wheels of economic re-engagement on a large scale going forward. The Michigan Reconnect program is being supported with an initial $30 million in state funding, enough to cover approximately 30,000 people. Applicants must be at least 25, have lived in the state a year or more, have a high school diploma or equivalent and not have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Shabaka Bailey, a 25-year-old unemployed father of two from Lansing, said when he first heard of the Reconnect program from a career coach at a local workforce development agency, he “thought it was almost too good to be true.” He said he was laid off twice due to the pandemic and cannot afford to attend Lansing Community College. Free tuition would be a “great opportunity for me to pursue my dream now,” he said, saying he wants to become an aviation technician.

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More than 4.1 million, or 41%, of residents may be eligible. Starting this summer, the aid will cover all tuition or mandatory fees not already offset by need-based federal Pell Grants or Michigan’s tuition program for Medicaid recipients.

But Michigan Reconnect was not a pandemic response plan. Gov. Whitmer has wanted to help working-age Michiganders get basic degrees or skills certificates since she took office two years ago. 

“It’s critical that we help Michiganders without a postsecondary education get on a path toward a good-paying job,” Whitmer said in a virtual news conference, saying 545,000 jobs in the trades will open through 2026.