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Michigan opens second free community college program

Tomorrow, the State of Michigan will begin to accept applications for Reconnect Michigan, a free community college program. The $30M initiative will pay for adult learners to earn an associate degree or certificate. Individuals age 25 and up can earn an associate degree or other college credential as long as they have not already earned one.

Applicants may attend classes at any Michigan community college or one of 70 private training centers. Students who live in a community college district can attend their home district at no cost. Out-of-district students will receive a stipend equal to the in-district rate, but they must pay the difference out-of-pocket. Alternately, students who choose to attend a private training center can receive a scholarship of $1,500 to defray expenses.

The Michigan Reconnect scholarship does not cover the cost of books, supplies, technology, course fees, childcare or transportation expenses. Federal financial aid or other scholarships may cover those expenses. Like Futures for Frontliners, the Michigan Reconnect program is a “last-dollar” financial aid program. Students who apply for the program must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The State will apply all available grant aid first. Michigan Reconnect will pay for any remaining tuition and fees.

Free community college program has a catch

Community colleges will compete against private, for-profit schools for the Reconnect Michigan funds. This is an important distinction between Reconnect Michigan and Futures for Frontliners. If the community colleges do not find an effective way to persuade eligible students to enroll in degree or certificate programs, then they will lose out on the beneficial impact of the Reconnect Michigan funding.

This limited-funding opportunity can increase enrollment at Michigan’s community colleges, however eligible students may not enroll there. Community colleges should market their degree or certificate program as a pathway to better job opportunities following graduation. In many cases, the approved training centers offer only limited scholarship-eligible programming.

It is worthwhile to remember that some WCC Board members and the college president were less than enthusiastic about free community college programs. Free community college programs are here to stay. Unfortunately, these programs are becoming the only pathway to an affordable college education for some people. That’s because the cost of attendance at some community colleges has risen beyond what community members can afford. Ironically, the same Trustees who pooh-pooh the prospect of “free community college” are responsible for allowing attendance costs to soar. They have only their own lack of commitment to authentic financial oversight to blame.

The Michigan Legislature missed an opportunity to require Michigan’s community college to disclose their administrative costs as a condition of receiving funding under the program. Institutions with expansive administrative costs should not be rewarded handsomely with state-paid tuition revenues. Instead, the State of Michigan should limit the participation of these institutions until they get their administrative costs under control.

Photo Credit: Truckee Meadows Community College, via Flickr