Finally, Michigan offers financial aid to older students

This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on February 15, 2021

This month, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the launch of Michigan Reconnect, a financial aid program that pays for two years of community college for Michigan residents 25 years or older. This is in addition to Futures for Frontliners, a program to offer free tuition for essential workers that launched in September and has accepted 82,000 students so far.

In her budget proposal released on Thursday, the governor announced that she has also dedicated $120 million in funding for Michigan Reconnect in next year’s budget, more than four times the amount in the current budget.

For individuals who live in a community college district (which are made up of counties, municipalities, townships or school districts in which property taxes are collected to support a specific community college), Michigan Reconnect will provide students with full tuition coverage to attend the college in their district.

For those who live outside the district of the college they wish to attend, the amount equivalent to in-district tuition will be covered and the student must cover the remainder. This applies to Michigan residents of an area that is not part of a district (which includes all or part of 50 of Michigan’s 83 counties). It also applies to residents of one district who attend a community college in a different district; for example, a very large percent of Henry Ford Community College students live in the Wayne County Community College district.

Michigan Reconnect also provides a $1,500 Skills Scholarship for those who wish to attain a skill certificate from a private training provider rather than a community college.

This goes a long way toward bringing Michigan’s financial aid system into the 21st century, as approximately 36% of Michigan community college students are 25 or over and such students, who have long been called “nontraditional” students, are mainstream now rather than the exceptions. Another change over the past few decades is that a higher share of jobs require a postsecondary credential than before, and community colleges play an important role in providing the education and training that lead to in-demand credentials.

Because community colleges also enable students to complete the first two years of many bachelor’s degree programs found at Michigan’s public universities, they help address affordability and accessibility issues for students with low incomes and students of color. This program may be an important component in reducing Michigan’s racial equity gap in bachelor’s degree attainment.

The Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) has long advocated for financial aid for older students. For the past 10 years, state need-based financial aid has been available only to older students who attend a private, not-for-profit college (through the Michigan Tuition Grant). For students who attend a community college or public university, the Michigan Competitive Scholarship and the Tuition Incentive Program are not available to students who have been out of high school for 10 years or more.

The history behind why this demographic has not received state financial aid for a decade is one of neglect rather than of willful exclusion. For decades, Michigan offered two financial aid grants to older students, including one that was specifically targeted to older students who went to college part-time. Under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the state instituted No Worker Left Behind, which paid for community college or occupational training for workers and other older individuals, but that program was discontinued after she left office and nothing was put in place to serve that population.

COVID-19 has shined a light on the need to provide older and essential workers with better education and employment opportunities, and Whitmer has been answering that call. Michigan Reconnect is a very good start and will help many or most community college students in that age demographic. And Michigan should build on this work further by providing financial aid to older students for public university attendance, by either reinstating the Part-Time Independent Student Grant or implementing a new grant for older students.

Interested adults can go to this page to see if they are eligible for Michigan Reconnect and to get started. And as state budget negotiations get underway in the coming weeks, the MLPP will continue to advocate for Michigan Reconnect, Futures for Frontliners, the Part-Time Independent Student Grant and other efforts to help provide workers with better education and employment opportunities.

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