If Michigan Doubles Down on Free Tuition, Will Residents Re-Up on Education?

In Michigan, demand for talent is high, but a shortage of workers with postsecondary credentials promises challenges for the state’s economic growth. To shore up the workforce, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has spent the last several years pushing toward tuition-free community college for all residents.

At the onset of the pandemic, Joshua McCoury was at a crossroads. A professional chef in the Detroit metro area for over two decades, he quickly lost his job as restaurants and businesses shut down across the region. 

Until that moment, McCoury endured the grueling hours and middling wages of restaurant kitchen work, often at the expense of his health and family life. So as unfortunate as losing his job was, it was also a moment of clarity. 

Through conversations with family and friends, he found his skills as an executive chef could translate to supply chain management, a career path that promised better pay and flexible hours. But the prospect of returning to education felt daunting to McCoury, particularly at that moment.

I had already been in the industry for a long time and felt stuck,” McCoury, 43, says. “I didn’t have the means to go back to school nor could I afford to not work and go back to school. And if I was going to do it one class at a time at 40 years old, I wouldn’t be finished until I was in my 50s.” 

Things changed when he discovered Michigan Reconnect, the state’s last-dollar scholarship program that helps working adults earn a postsecondary degree with free or reduced-cost tuition.  Within days, McCoury applied and received an approval letter notifying him that he could have all of his tuition paid. 

The Big Idea: Michigan, once middle of the pack in the college completion push, quickly became a state to watch during the pandemic—rolling out a series of initiatives, including Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect, meant to help working adults like McCoury re-up on education.

Photo Courtesy of Oakland Community College

It was one of a handful of states, including North Carolina and Virginia, that saw success with programs focused on helping adults earn career-focused credentials to help them re-enter or advance in the labor market. In particular, Michigan leaders said the targeted approach helped “stem the bleeding” as community colleges nationwide saw major enrollment declines.

Now, the state is taking stock and weighing its next steps. More than 157K Michiganders have applied for Reconnect and Future for Frontliners to date, according to state data. But only 46K applicants have enrolled at their in-district community college, and fewer than 6K have earned a degree through the signature Reconnect program. 

While there was wisdom—and political savvy—in targeting working adults, experts Work Shift spoke with said the incremental approach to expanding access has proven somewhat confusing to the state’s residents.

“It’s not the simplest way to boost college-going to have a patchwork of different programs that have different criteria,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, where she focuses on the local, state, and national movement toward tuition-free college.

Better navigation support and connections to employers are a must, Miller-Adams and other experts say. For her part, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has called on lawmakers to make community college tuition-free for all high school graduates. If Michigan does so, it would join states like Tennessee, Maine, and Washington.

“We’re broadening our vision of education beyond K-12,” Whitmer said in her State of the State address in January.

Chipping Away at a Big Goal

A faculty member works with a student in a math class at Oakland Community College. (Photo courtesy of OCC)

The Details: When Whitmer got elected governor in 2018, just shy of 49% of Michigan residents held a college degree or credential. That relatively low attainment rate—ranked 37th in the nation—coupled with the state’s aging workforce and lagging population growth had created a profound shortage of skilled workers.

Within months of taking office, Whitmer announced her “Sixty by 30” plan, setting a goal for 60% of working-age Michiganders to have a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2030. About half the states already had similar goals at the time, following a decade-long push championed by the Lumina Foundation and the Obama administration.

Among the Whitmer administration’s efforts to boost the state workforce, reducing the financial barriers to attending college has been a major priority. Futures for Frontliners, which launched during the pandemic, was designed to assist essential workers. Last year, the Michigan Legislature approved the Michigan Achievement Scholarship for recent high school graduates seeking to attend two- or four-year colleges and universities.

Chief among those programs has been Michigan Reconnect. In 2021, Whitmer launched the $30M scholarship program with bipartisan support, making it the state’s largest effort to ensure that more than 4.1M Michigan adults lacking a college degree could earn an associate degree or skills certificate at a free or reduced tuition cost. 

Michigan’s college attainment rate has grown since the program’s inception, and stands at 51.1% as of 2022. But the state’s numbers still trail behind regional and national educational attainment rates.

The Trouble with ‘Yield’

The disparity between Reconnect applicants and enrollees, Miller-Adams says, is a multifaceted issue, ranging from a promising post-COVID job market to systemic barriers that traditionally plague the students community colleges serve. Michigan community colleges rank among the worst in the nation in college completion rates.

“A lot of people applied but then didn’t have navigation support or the rationale to go do it,” she says. 

Navigation Woes: Michigan Reconnect currently employs 12 “navigators” to provide individual support to its applicants and ensure they successfully enroll and complete their degrees. At the program’s start in 2021, those navigators had a weekly caseload of 5K Reconnect applicants. 

Recent reports have called for better promotion of the Reconnect program and more comprehensive support for its enrollees, especially those living in rural areas outside community college districts.

Jennifer Majorana, a policy analyst and senior director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, argues a lack of data transparency about student outcomes has muddled the program’s purported goals to fast-track workers to some of the state’s high-demand job sectors.

It’s hard to say that (Michigan Reconnect) is successful when we don’t have data to show whether it is putting students on a better pathway to a higher paying job, or a job that fits their interests better, or any kind of metrics like that,” Majorana says. 

“We’re pushing a lot of funding as a state towards getting people to enroll in college and community college. But then we’re not seeing very good graduation rates.”

Changes in the Works

It’s a dilemma state officials are wrestling with, especially given the pressing need among major and emerging state employers. And possible solutions are already in the works. This month, community colleges can apply for grant funding upwards of $100K to coordinate entry-point systems for Reconnect applicants, assisting adult learners in enrolling at their nearest college and sponsoring career and college navigators. 

“Unless the student has the technology, transportation, childcare, and a career that supports them taking time away to go to class, it doesn’t matter how much you dangle a free college degree in front of them.”

— Meghan Schmidbauer of Detroit Drives Degrees

Michigan officials also are banking on regional collaboratives to assist community colleges in driving local attainment rates toward the state’s broader goal.

On the Ground: One collaborative already in place is Detroit Drives Degrees. Predating the launch of Michigan Reconnect, the initiative provides technical assistance and financial resources to local community colleges to reduce the region’s racial inequity gap for college attainment and boost the local talent pipeline.

“You can throw as much money at a problem as you want, but unless the student has the technology, transportation, childcare, and a career that supports them taking time away to go to class, it doesn’t matter how much you dangle a free college degree in front of them,” says Meghan Schmidbauer, senior director of Detroit Drives Degrees. 

Operated through the Detroit Regional Chamber, the program partners with regional colleges to connect area students to postsecondary opportunities. “We’re more than just providing enrollment information and program information—we also support the students as they’re going through that journey,” Schmidbauer says. 

At one Detroit area community college, administrators recently developed a mentoring program for Reconnect students following an on-campus survey that found a need for more personalized support.

This past fall, state officials launched a short-term training program through Reconnect, helping cover costs for residents to earn credentials for the critically short-staffed healthcare field.

The Michigan Department of Lifelong Education, Advancement, and Potential, which oversees Reconnect, could not provide a breakdown of the degrees and certificates earned by Reconnect students, but said officials are “currently reviewing initial data” as well as “reach[ing] out to individuals who have applied for Reconnect, but not yet enrolled.”

“We know it takes time for prospective students to fit the demands of earning a skill certificate or degree with other responsibilities such as work or caregiving,” a MiLEAP spokesperson told Work Shift. “These individuals have taken the first step toward college, and we continue to be available to support them in taking the next steps.”

‘They Self-Identify as Employees First’

Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, says the program could better leverage the support of state employers. 

“The truth is that the vast majority of Reconnectors are workers,” Johnson says. “They self-identify as employees first. We can or should help employers promote this as a benefit to their employees, and encourage employers to provide incentives for graduation and completion.”

Before her current role, she worked in the Whitmer administration, advising its Sixty by 30 initiative and contributing to the design of Michigan Reconnect. 

Employer Outreach: Over the past few years, employers have aggressively sought out students in community college technical programs, at times hiring individuals before they can complete their degrees. That trend, Johnson worries, could hinder completion rates, but not if employers are made to understand the importance of degree completion. 

Career exploration and goal-setting for returning students, Johnson added, is also vital.  

“It’s important to help them think about what they want to do, and have good data about what their employment and wage outcomes will be and then design on the front end a program map that says, ‘okay, here’s my career goal, here’s the degree or certificate that will help best help me get into that role.'”

An early benefit of the Reconnect program, Johnson says, is that it’s pushed colleges to evaluate and change their class scheduling models to accommodate adult students with work and family responsibilities, and embrace a corequisite model of education for academically underprepared students.

Leaning into the Allure of a Good Job—and a Degree

Oakland Community College commencement in 2024. (Courtesy of OCC)

Kelly Thalmann used Reconnect in her last two semesters at Oakland Community College. After years of raising a family, she’s earning a master’s degree this fall and works on the school’s admissions team.

“We do everything we can to promote Michigan Reconnect, we have fliers, we talk about it,” Thalmann says. 

“I just did a Michigan Reconnect event, and I want to say that maybe half of them were coming back because they were looking for that higher-paying position. But the other half was like, ‘I just want to get that degree’. I hear that a lot.”

Looking Forward: This spring, McCoury will graduate with an Associate of Arts in Business Administration degree from Oakland Community College, placing him among the roughly 5.5K Michiganders who have earned a degree or certificate through Reconnect since the program launched in 2021. 

“When I lost my job, I spent a lot of time talking to a lot of people and trying to see, ‘What are my options?,'” McCoury says. “How could I apply what I already know to a degree that’s going to benefit me in a job where I can work fewer hours, make more money, and possibly still apply some of the skills that I’ve already attained working as a chef, which doesn’t translate well to any other industry.”

This fall, he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in Global Supply Chain Management at Wayne State University. From there, he hopes to work at one of the Big Three automakers as a supply chain manager. 

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