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Free community college plan lacks value

Bridge Michigan published an editorial today in which the writer discussed the logic behind Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to offer free community college to all recent high school graduates. The plan requires the approval of both the House and the Senate. The Senate has signed on, but so far, the House has not.

Unfortunately, the writer seems to have accepted the “If-you-build-it-they-will-come” premise on which the free community college plan rests. Realistically, Michigan Reconnect demonstrates the likely outcome of a universal free community college plan. Currently, millions of Michiganders are eligible for Michigan Reconnect. More than a hundred and twenty-five thousand applicants have been accepted into the program. Fewer than 10,000 have actually graduated.

I am not in any way opposed to Michigan Reconnect, Futures for Frontliners, or any other free community college program here in Michigan or anywhere else. But there are practical limits to these programs that no one seems to be acknowledging.

The community colleges aren’t ready for this. Michigan’s community colleges aren’t ready for the students the Governor hopes to enroll in the program. Community colleges have spent the last decade idling when they should have been developing new academic programs and building complementary facilities that would have helped them attract and retain the students they’re now hoping to enroll. Instead of being prepared with programs that could propel these students into middle class jobs, the community colleges are still operating programs that were obsolete 10 years ago.

The State should have first assessed the readiness of community colleges for a program like this. Then, it could have solicited proposals for competitive grants to build programs that met the economic development needs of the state and counties. After, the State could have underwritten tuition grants for students who enrolled.

Free community college should support State’s economic development goals

This could have built Michigan’s workforces to meet its clean energy and power infrastructure, semiconductor, electric vehicle, road and bridge construction, sustainable housing, sustainable agriculture, and clean water needs.

The lack of facilities, strategies, and services to support working students would have become obvious. All of these are barriers to student success. In support of working student-parents, the State should have required all community colleges to operate and maintain a licensed, on-campus childcare facility and an on-campus health clinic where students could receive basic primary care and mental health care.

The State should have assessed every academic program for its earnings potential and should have required participating community colleges to phase out programs that did not provide adequate income for graduates. Free community college tuition should have been restricted only to those programs that delivered living-wage potential.

Until the State addresses these really basic concerns at its community colleges, program participation will remain low. Increasing the college graduation rate is a laudable goal, but let’s not forget that people need to make a living, too.

Photo Credit: Shawn Liu , via Flickr