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Governor seeks free community college plan

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer plans to use a part of her State of the State address tomorrow to ask legislators to approve a plan to make community college tuition free for all high school graduates. The request would be the second time the governor has extended the boundaries of a free community college tuition program.

Currently, the Michigan Reconnect program is available to adults 21 and older who have not yet earned at least 60 college credits. Enrollees can use the program funding to earn a GED, a certificate, or an associate degree at one of Michigan’s community colleges or trade schools.

Although the program eligibility currently extends free community college benefits to more than 4 million state residents, only about 27,000 people have enrolled to date, and fewer than 3,000 have completed a degree or other eligible credential. Expanding the free community college program to any high school graduate regardless of age could add tens of thousands more eligible participants. It would also address the temporary extension of educational benefits to Michiganders between ages 21-25, which the legislature authorized for the current budget year only.

The current participation rate of the program highlights one glaring fault. Lawmakers have assumed that community colleges are prepared to take on thousands (or tens of thousands) of students. Unfortunately, few community colleges have sufficient degree programs that lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs. Without these options, few people will take advantage of the free college offer.

Free community college won’t produce desired results

Based on data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average income potential for a graduate (10 years after initial enrollment) of Michigan’s community colleges is currently $35,643. That is slightly better than $17 per hour, and is not enough to support an individual in any major Michigan city. It is certainly not enough to buy a home or rent an apartment, buy a car, pay educational debt, and pay the standard costs of living (food, utilities, insurance, childcare, etc.)

Michigan’s community colleges have not kept pace with the income needs of Michigan’s adult population. They do not offer a sufficient number of programs for high-wage, high-demand jobs and cannot attract adult students to their classrooms. While the cost of developing new occupational education programs may be significant, we do not have a choice if we are to retain prime age workers, attract new employers and industries, and attract educated workers from other states.

Michigan’s community colleges MUST address the needs of emerging industries, like alternative energy, technology, healthcare, semiconductor fabrication, clean water, agriculture, etc. Michigan’s community colleges must be pressed to increase both their graduation rates and the economic value of their degrees. When left to themselves, Michigan’s community colleges choose to operate the training programs that cost the least to deliver, instead of those that provide the highest economic returns and the best chance for true economic mobility to their students and to the community. Worse, this approach actively opposes economic development that might otherwise bring new industries and employers to Michigan.

Unfortunately, expanding free community college programs is putting the cart before the horse. The legislature must require the state’s community colleges to develop programs that lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs as a condition of participation in the free tuition program.

Photo Credit: Ian