CADILLAC — More than 30,000 people in Wexford, Missaukee and Lake counties qualify for discounted tuition at a nearby community college as part of a new state program.
Through Michigan Reconnect, qualifying applicants are eligible to have all their tuition costs covered if they attend a community college in their taxing district. If they have to travel outside their taxing district to attend a community college, they are eligible to have a portion of their tuition covered.
Since there are no publicly-funded community colleges in this area, eligible residents fall in the latter category.
Kelly Smith, president of Baker College in Cadillac, said they aren't included in the program because Baker is a private, non-profit college that doesn't receive funding from the state.
She said it was disappointing to hear that institutions such as Baker weren't included in the new program but she nonetheless was excited about the opportunity it offered to eligible residents.
The closest participating community colleges are Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, West Shore Community College in Scottville, and Mid Michigan College in Mount Pleasant.
According to a press release issued by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, 16,704 people qualify for the Michigan Reconnect program in Wexford County, 7,769 in Missaukee County, and 7,300 in Lake County.
The press release doesn't include information regarding Osceola County. According to the release, in Northern Michigan and the U.P., 395,000 residents would be eligible for the scholarship.
To be eligible, residents have to meet several criteria — be at least 25 years old when they apply, have lived in Michigan for a year or more, have a high school diploma, and have not yet completed a college degree (associate or bachelor’s).
“With more than 40,000 applications submitted statewide since the program launched on Feb. 2, the response to Michigan Reconnect is certainly off to a good start,‘ said Susan Corbin, acting director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. “But we can’t stop there. In order to ensure all Michiganders have an opportunity for a prosperous future, we need all businesses, teachers, parents, family and friends encouraging those they work with or know to take that leap and take advantage of this opportunity to achieve their associate degree or skills certificate for little to no cost.‘
Areas of study covered by the program focus on skills development in career fields that report chronic shortages of workers. They include automotive service technicians and mechanics; computer user support specialists; heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers; licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses; machinists; medical assistants; nursing assistants; registered nurses; respiratory therapists; and welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers.
Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to ensure Michiganders who are 25 or older and don’t have a college degree — more than 4.1 million people in all — have an opportunity to earn a tuition-free or deeply discounted associate degree or skills certificate.
Reconnect scholarships are accepted by all Michigan community colleges and are also available to eligible adults already enrolled in their local community college. The program pays the remaining balance of tuition and mandatory fees after other state and federal financial aid have been applied.
Eligible residents can attend community college tuition-free at the campus within their community college district. For those who don’t live in-district or choose to attend another campus, Reconnect will cover the in-district portion of tuition.
“While we understand that many residents in Northern Michigan and the U.P. live outside a community college district, we believe discounting tuition helps make a postsecondary degree more affordable for everyone,‘ Corbin said.
Michigan employers’ ability to find highly skilled and capable employees is more difficult than ever and is cited as a top concern in the most recent Michigan Future Business Index Report. Only 34% of Northern Michiganders 25 or older have an associate degree or higher, according to state Department of Technology, Management and Budget data.
A 2020 analysis by the American Association of Community Colleges reports the median earnings of full-time employees with a high school degree is $40,510 annually, while those with an associate degree make $50,079 per year, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“This is one of the many reasons Michigan Reconnect is the best first step toward in-demand, high-wage careers,‘ said Bill Raymond, CEO of Upper Peninsula Michigan Works! “Better jobs mean better communities and a stronger Michigan.‘
Michigan Reconnect builds on the Futures for Frontliners initiative Gov. Gretchen Whitmer launched last September and to which more than 120,000 essential front-line workers submitted applications for tuition-free college or high school completion.
Both free-tuition programs align with the state’s Sixty by 30 goal of ensuring 60% of Michiganders will have a postsecondary degree by 2030. Funding for Michigan Reconnect was introduced in Whitmer’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal. Legislators approved $30 million in state funding for the program.
Eligible residents can learn more and apply for Michigan Reconnect atmichigan.gov/Reconnect.