Labor and Economic Opportunity
New state initiative has already attracted 12,000+ West MI applicants for tuition-free community college
March 15, 2021
Media Contact: Camara Lewis, 517-930-4928
In the six weeks since launching Michigan Reconnect, enough Michiganders have applied for tuition-free community college to nearly fill Ford Field.
"With over 62,000 applications statewide since the program launched Feb. 2, we can see that Michigan adults are excited to pursue an associate degree or skills certificate at little to no cost," said Susan Corbin, acting director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Opportunity (LEO) at a virtual news conference today.
The massive influx of applicants far outpaced LEO's initial goal to enlist 60,000 applicants by Memorial Day. The number of applicants took a big jump late last week when approximately 14,000 Michiganders who applied but didn't qualify for Futures for Frontliners were automatically enrolled for Michigan Reconnect. A map shows the statewide application totals by region.
"When you add in the 120,000 essential front-line workers who've applied for tuition-free college or high school completion, you're talking about connecting over 170,000 Michiganders to good-paying jobs and businesses with the talent they need to thrive," Corbin said.
Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to make it easier and more affordable for residents 25 or older without a college degree - more than 4.1 million statewide - to earn a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate at their in-district community college or private training school.
Corbin made her comments today at a LEO virtual news conference where West Michigan legislative, education and economic development leaders discussed the program and the regional benefits for residents pursuing a postsecondary degree.
State Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo, said he was proud to join with colleagues on both sides of the aisle in approving $30 million in state funding to launch the program this year. Given the economic challenges caused by the pandemic, additional education and training are more important than ever, he said.
"If you've always wanted to go to college or return to finish a degree, now may be the right time to make that dream become a reality," McCann said.
New figures show 12,191 Reconnect applicants in West Michigan. Per capita, Kalamazoo, Kent and Muskegon counties, respectively, have the largest number of applicants in the region, while Newaygo, Branch, Cass, Oceana and Mecosta counties have the least.
Total applicants and those eligible in West Michigan and parts of Central Michigan include 384 (54,074 eligible) in Allegan County, 186 (29,012) in Barry County, 768 (66,662) in Berrien County, 146 (23,368) in Branch County, 732 (63,666) in Calhoun County, 143 (25,844) in Cass County, 132 (21,184) in Gratiot County, 247 (32,074) in Ionia County, 267 (24,306) in Isabella County, 1,896 (85,110) in Kalamazoo County, 3,692 (236,041) in Kent County, 88 (18,270) in Mecosta County, 292 (33,954) in Montcalm County, 1,237 (81,033) in Muskegon County, 131 (25,112) in Newaygo County, 78 (12,950) in Oceana County, 1,091 (100,804) in Ottawa County, 244 (30,224) in St. Joseph County and 437 (35,214) in Van Buren County.
Reconnect scholarships are accepted by all Michigan community colleges and are also available to eligible adults already enrolled in their local community college. The program pays the remaining balance of tuition and mandatory fees after other state and federal financial aid have been applied. For those who choose to attend an out-of-district community college, Reconnect will pay the in-district portion of tuition.
Community colleges across the state have already accepted thousands of "Reconnecters" for classes beginning this summer.
Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink said the Michigan Reconnect scholarship removes cost as a barrier to education and opens the door to life-changing degrees or occupational certificates.
"But no one should feel they are taking these steps alone," Pink said. "That's why we are committed to helping Reconnecters with support services and a class schedule that allows them to work around job and family responsibilities."
Battle Creek native Victoria Ramon-Fox, 25, was recently accepted into Reconnect and is ready to start summer classes at Kellogg Community College. Although the mother of two loves her full-time job helping English-language learners in Battle Creek, she says a college degree allows a future without limitations.
"The best way to help my family and my community is to lead by example and not sell myself short," Ramon-Fox said.
Michigan employers' ability to find highly skilled employees is more difficult than ever. Only 38% of West Michigan residents 25 or older have an associate degree or higher, according to Michigan Bureau of Labor and Market Information and Strategic Initiatives data.
Many of the 530,000 job openings projected in Michigan through 2028 are in highly skilled, high-wage fields such as information technology, computer science, manufacturing, healthcare and professional trades.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she believes Reconnect will help close the state's widening talent gap and improve the overall quality of life for Michigan families. The program is included in her recommended budget for fiscal year 2022 with a proposed quadrupling of funding with a one-time $120 million appropriation.
Organizations from all sectors of the state's economy have pledged to promote awareness of the program as Reconnect Champions, including Greater Muskegon Economic Development.
"Our state's recovery and growth depend upon a smarter, stronger workforce. Now is the perfect moment in time for Michiganders to take the next step in their education, whether it's an associate degree or skills certificate," said Jim Edmonson, president and CEO of the economic development organization.
To be eligible for Michigan Reconnect, you must be at least 25 years old when you apply, have lived in Michigan for a year or more, have a high school diploma and not yet completed a college degree (associate or bachelor's).
Eligible residents can learn more and apply for Michigan Reconnect at Michigan.gov/Reconnect.