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Bipartisan support can offer workers more opportunities, brighter futures

According to 2019 census data, on average, fewer than 29% of Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency and Presque Isle county residents have an associate, bachelor’s or graduate or professional degree. While there are certainly a variety of educational and professional paths in life, the Michigan League for Public Policy wants to make sure the decision on whether or not to go to college is a personal one, not a financial one.

But in too many cases in Northeast Michigan and around the state, the cost of a higher education is the primary barrier preventing people from pursuing their true dreams.

Michigan university tuition is very high, with our state having the third highest public university tuition in the nation. Michigan ranks dead last nationally, in dollars per student, among the states in providing financial aid for attendance at a public community college or university. At the same time, many workers making lower wages have a difficult time finding employment providing higher pay and more job security–often due to lack of a postsecondary degree, certificate or license.

Luckily, there are programs in place that have helped make college more affordable for older workers: Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. The continuation of and additional funding for these successful programs is being negotiated as part of the state budget and federal COVID relief negotiations happening right now.

Michigan Reconnect provides two years of free training or community college for students 25 or older. It was passed in March 2020 with bipartisan support just days prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting, and was ultimately funded in the 2021 state budget. Last month, the state announced that 70,000 Michigan Reconnect applicants are set to receive a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate.

Futures for Frontliners was established by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a year ago to provide a tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate to essential workers who don’t have a college degree. This includes many of the workers we have relied on personally and as a state to get through the pandemic, like hospital workers, grocery store clerks and stockers, child care providers, custodial and sanitation workers and more. Within the Sept. 10-Dec. 31 application period, more than 120,000 frontline workers applied for Futures for Frontliners.

These programs have helped bring new hope for so many Michigan residents. But. despite the hope and opportunity they have provided during these trying times, the fate of Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners are both up in the air right now.

The governor included significant funding for Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners in her initial 2022 budget proposal. But in the legislative budget bills that have passed so far, the Senate included the current funding levels of $30 million for each program. The Michigan House of Representatives did not include any funding for either Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners, essentially eliminating them.

The 2022 budget legislation is currently being negotiated between the governor and legislature. Gov. Whitmer has doubled-down her support for these programs, calling for $120 million for Michigan Reconnect and $60 million for Futures for Frontliners in her Michigan Economic Jumpstart Plan that she announced last week. The governor sees both of these programs as vital support for Michigan residents and key to reaching her goal of increasing the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 49% today to 60% by 2030.

Increasing the skill levels of workers is good for Michigan’s economy and making college more affordable can decrease inequities in educational level based on race and ethnicity. The Republican-led Legislature has supported Michigan Reconnect before, and the enrollment numbers and personal stories of enrollees show that Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners and the opportunities they provide resonate around the state. We hope that as budget negotiations continue, policymakers place a priority on opening doors to a higher education or skilled trade.

More information, including real stories of real people who have enrolled in these programs, can be found at michigan.gov/reconnect and michigan.gov/frontliners.

<>Alex Rossman is external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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