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Reconnecting Michigan: Many people without degrees eligible for free or reduced community college through Michigan Reconnect program

Many people without degrees eligible for free or reduced community college through Michigan Reconnect program

HOUGHTON — More than 140,000 people in the Upper Peninsula are eligible for free or deeply discounted community college tuition through a new state program targeted at working adults without a college degree, officials said Friday.

To be eligible for the Michigan Reconnect program, people must be 25 or older, lived in Michigan for at least a year, and have a high school diploma but not received a college degree. They can apply at michigan.gov/reconnect.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had proposed the plan when first elected, said Susan Corbin, acting director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. She and legislative leaders used a similar program in Tennessee as a model.

Michigan Reconnect builds on Futures for Frontliners, a program launched last fall that offers scholarships to people who were essential workers during the start of the COVID pandemic last spring. Even prior to the pandemic, employers had been identifying a skills gap, Corbin said.

“Employers could not identify people with the right talents in their local communities for jobs,” she said in an interview Monday. “The governor’s entire proposal of 60 by 30 — getting 60% of our population to have a post-secondary degree by 2030 — is really all about closing that skill gap and also helping people in Michigan without a degree improve their economic situation.”

So far, more than 40,000 people have applied statewide, Corbin said. As of Monday morning, 333 were from the Upper Peninsula and 930 are in Northern Michigan.

The Legislature approved $30 million in funding for the program for 2021 on a bipartisan basis.

Only 34% of Northern Michigan and U.P. residents 25 or older have an associate’s degree, said State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, whose district includes parts of Northern Michigan and the eastern Upper Peninsula.

I hope all eligible Michiganders take advantage, and explore this program,” he said. “Getting that college degree or training certificate will go a long ways towards building a stronger regional workforce, which benefits families and communities alike.”

The program covers all tuition for people who live within a community college district. For those who are out of district, it covers everything up to the in-district rate.

For Gogebic Community College, only people in Gogebic County qualify for in-district rates. Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College has one tuition rate for all Michigan residents.

Eligible program applicants in the Copper Country include 4,591 in Baraga County, 12,342 in Houghton County, 947 in Keweenaw County and 3,565 in Ontonagon County.

People who enroll have up to four years to complete their degree. The state will be tracking the rate of people who finish a degree or skills certificate along with the effect it has on their income, Corbin said. The state will also work with local Michigan Works agencies and community colleges to see how this program satisfies the needs that they have for skilled workers in their communities.

The state has more than 525,000 job openings projected through 2028, many in high-wage, high-demand fields such as computer science, manufacturing, information technology and health care, Upper Peninsula Michigan Works! CEO Bill Raymond said at a news conference Monday.

A degree or certificate could make a big difference for people at the lowest income levels. The latest report from the Michigan Association of United Ways found 43% of households statewide where someone is working still don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs.

“We know the difference in income for somebody who just has a high school degree as opposed to a two-year community college degree is almost $10,000,” Corbin said. “If someone completes their community college degree that helps them significantly to get out of that 43% of people who are still living in poverty in Michigan.”

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