Michigan May Expand Free Community College, Career-Training Programs

Bipartisan bills making their way through the statehouse would use COVID-19 relief funds to pay for an expansion of the successful Michigan Reconnect program.

June 7, 2022 · Updated on June 7, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Michigan May Expand Free Community College, Career-Training Programs
COVID-19 Higher Ed Policy

  • Michigan Reconnect offers free community college for all residents 25 years and older.
  • The proposed legislation would lower the age requirements for the program to 21 years and older.
  • A separate proposal would also expand career-training programs.

Michigan lawmakers may temporarily expand their state's tuition-free community college program to younger students.

The state's current program, Michigan Reconnect, began last year and pays the tuition and fees of Michigan residents 25 years and older seeking an associate degree or skilled trade certifications. Two new proposals would lower the age requirement to anybody 21 years and older, as well as make grants available for short-term, career-training programs.

State Reps. Ben Frederick, a Republican, and Sarah Anthony, a Democrat, co-introduced the legislation. They also co-introduced the bill that created the Michigan Reconnect program last year.

"I'm extremely proud of the difference the MI Reconnect program has made in the lives of so many Michiganders, and I'm excited to build on its success," Anthony said in a statement. "Expanding the age limitations and taking steps to make education more accessible will help us meet the needs of learners who might have otherwise fell through the cracks as a result of the pandemic."

“In its first year, Michigan Reconnect accepted more than 91,000 students, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in February.”

In its first year, Michigan Reconnect accepted more than 91,000 students, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in February.

Career-Training Programs, College Completion Rates Prioritized

Frederick, who chairs the House's budget subcommittee on community colleges and higher education, dedicated $155 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for the expansion of Reconnect, the legislator said in a statement.

The age expansion would be temporary. According to the text of HB 6130, those aged 21-24 will need to join the Michigan Reconnect program within three years of the bill becoming law. After that time period, the program will once again only be available for those older than 24.

The Michigan bill bears some resemblance to a recently passed program in Maine. The Maine law provides free community college to students who graduated high school between 2020 and 2023, as a way to make up for those who stopped pursuing higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While the age-restrictions change would be temporary, it seems that the expansion of programs eligible under Michigan Reconnect would be permanent.”

While the age-restrictions change would be temporary, it seems that the expansion of programs eligible under Michigan Reconnect would be permanent.

HB 6130 would add short-term, career-training programs as eligible for grants under Michigan Reconnect. These programs must provide 150-600 hours of instructional time over a period of 8-15 weeks. Those training programs must also align with the requirements of "high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand industry sectors for occupations in this state."

Companion bill HB 6129 would make more permanent modifications to Michigan Reconnect. Notably, it would create four-year completion rate guidelines for participating institutions to ensure students finish with an associate degree or job certificate within four years. The goal is to increase completion rates above 75%.

National data pegs the six-year completion rate for public two-year colleges at just over 42%.

Both bills were first read on the House floor May 24 and referred to the House Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

States Advance Free Community College Movement

Free community college nationwide seemed within reach in fall 2021 with its inclusion in President Joe Biden's Build Back Better domestic spending proposal. But late last October, the provision was cut from the bill in a bid to gain the support of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who both opposed that specific policy.

The cut was not enough to appease Manchin, who on Dec. 19, 2021, announced he could not support Build Back Better, denying Democrats the necessary 50 Senate votes required to pass the bill through reconciliation.

“After free community college failed at the federal level, experts told BestColleges they expected states to take up the issue and pass their own tuition-free college plans.”

After free community college failed at the federal level, experts told BestColleges they expected states to take up the issue and pass their own tuition-free college plans. Maine, New Mexico, and Minnesota have all recently enacted limited grant programs for select students or degree programs.

According to the Campaign for Free College Tuition, there are just 19 states without any form of a statewide free college tuition program that meets the organization's recognition criteria. Michigan has one of the strongest programs in the country.

Michigan’s proposed expansion of its free community college program also comes at a time of pandemic-induced enrollment declines across the country. According to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Michigan reported the sharpest decline in the country (-15.5%) for the recent spring semester. The report, however, stated that Michigan was among a handful of states with inconsistent data submission across years, which made enrollment estimates less accurate.