Helping adults go back to school

While our economy has started to rebound in many areas, Michigan still faces a big problem — we don’t currently have the qualified workers to fill jobs in the industries that are growing the most in this state. And, while a higher education degree or credential is the key to connecting the two, most older workers can’t afford to leave their current jobs or pay to go back to school or get additional training.

But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is working to find a solution. In her 2019-2020 state budget, Gov. Whitmer has proposed Michigan Reconnect, a program that will provide debt-free tuition for up to two years for students over the age of 25 and already in the workforce. That proposal would meet a need that has been overlooked for too long, and would go far to help local workers, communities and economies around the state, including Alpena.

Since 2011, Michigan has had no state-funded financial aid to assist students who have been out of high school for 10 years in attending a public university or community college.

As the Michigan League for Public Policy has discussed for years, even drawing national media attention to the issue, the three need-based state financial aid programs that have been in place for the past eight years have been closed to this population.

The Michigan Tuition Grant is accessible to older students, but may only be used at a private, nonprofit college or university and not a public institution. The Michigan Competitive Scholarship and the Tuition Incentive Program are only available to recent high school graduates.

The Part-Time Independent Student Grant and the Michigan Educational Opportunity Grant were available to nontraditional students (generally defined as age 25 or older and often working and/or supporting families), but were discontinued after 2009. At that time, the Jennifer Granholm administration had put into place the much bolder No Worker Left Behind program that provided two years of free community college to unemployed or recently laid-off individuals, or residents who were employed but had a family income of $40,000 or less.

Many older students who would have been eligible for the two discontinued grants would likely have been eligible for No Worker Left Behind.

Under the Rick Snyder administration, No Worker Left Behind was phased out, as awardees were allowed to continue receiving the aid until they finished school or eligibility ran out, but no new awards were given. The administration initiated and supported important programs providing workers with free or low-cost, employer-driven occupational training and, sometimes, those programs partnered with community colleges. But during Snyder’s tenure, there was no financial aid for other older students who wanted to attend a community college or university. Despite strong advocacy from the Michigan League for Public Policy and other organizations, the Part-Time Independent Student Grant and Michigan Educational Opportunity Grant were never restored by the Michigan Legislature.

While funding for older workers to get a degree or new skills training has stalled over the last few years, the need for it has only grown. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 70 percent of Alpena County residents do not currently have a college degree, including an associate degree. And the percent of residents without any type of college degree are even higher in neighboring counties — 75 percent in Alcona County, 76 percent in Presque Isle County, and 80 percent in Montmorency County.

But Michigan Reconnect can change that.

With the need for more workers with up-to-date skills, many jobs going unfilled, and an unsatisfactory percentage of workers with a college degree, Michigan cannot continue to ignore working parents and other nontraditional students who want to go to college or learn new trades. Gov. Whitmer has set a goal to have 60 percent of state residents with some type of postsecondary degree by 2030.

For most workers, the desire to learn new things and expand their skills is there — but the financial means to do so is not. The governor deserves kudos for addressing those problems and launching Michigan Reconnect, and we hope the Legislature will do the right thing and support it as the budget process moves forward.

Peter Ruark is senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy.