When Michigan launched a free college program for frontline workers last year during the pandemic, state officials expected to receive around 15,000 applicants. Instead, the program, called Futures for Frontliners, drew 120,000.
“It was kind of a proof point, if you will, that demand is high in our state for this opportunity,” said Kerry Ebersole, director of Michigan’s Sixty by 30 initiative, which aims for 60% of the state’s working adults to have a postsecondary credential by 2030.
Just a few months later, the state created another free college program. Called Michigan Reconnect, it targets residents who are 25 or older with a high school diploma but no further degrees. Within six weeks, the program received more than 60,000 applications.
Both initiatives are part of Michigan’s Sixty by 30 goal, which relies on increasing college-going rates from recent high school graduates and enticing adults to gain postsecondary credentials. Around 45 states have similar attainment goals, yet free college programs open to adult students, typically considered to be those ages 25 and older, are uncommon in higher education.
Fourteen out of 23 statewide free college programs exclude adult and returning students, while many of those that don’t leave them out have stringent participation requirements that “effectively do the same,” according to a report last year from The Education Trust. Just two programs in its sample were designed for older students.
The landscape may be shifting, however. The pandemic reinvigorated calls to upskill large swaths of the population. Its harm to the economy also highlighted the need for states and colleges to remove potential cost barriers to postsecondary education.
“Finances will no longer be the barrier to getting a college degree if you’re over 25,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “As we start to see increasing requirements of higher skills … you’ll also see therefore the demand pick up for adult students to come back.”
Looking to Tennessee for help
Michigan lawmakers set aside $30 million to fund the Reconnect program, which pays for students’ remaining tuition after all other state and financial aid has been applied. The measure garnered bipartisan support by being billed as a workforce development initiative, even though free college proposals nationwide are more contentious.
“Name an industry anywhere in the country, and there’s going to be a shortage of skilled people to fill jobs there,” said Michigan state Sen. Ken Horn, a Republican who helped spearhead the legislation. “It doesn’t matter — Republican, Democrat, what region of the state you’re from — we have people on board with this issue because it truly solves the problem.”
Michigan isn’t the first state to launch a free college program for adult students. It drew inspiration from Tennessee, a red state that pioneered free college programs for students coming straight from high school and older learners.
Tennessee created its program for the former group in 2014. Still, lawmakers and industry leaders complained that adults were left out, said Emily House, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission executive director. Four years later, it launched Tennessee Reconnect for those classified as independent students.
In its first year, nearly 42,000 people applied for the Tennessee Reconnect grant. More than 18,000 enrolled in an associate degree or certificate program and received aid, covering tuition and fees after all other state and federal assistance was applied.
According to a state analysis of the program, program participants “overwhelmingly identified” finances as their most significant hurdle to pursuing a college credential. They also ranked family responsibilities, work demands, and time management as concerns.
More than 2,000 students completed a degree or certificate during the first year, and 248 of that group stayed enrolled to pursue another credential. “That first year was just beyond anything we could have imagined,” House said. “It’s very much just become part of the suite of financial aid initiatives that we offer in Tennessee, and it’s part of the conversation in a way it wouldn’t have been five years ago.”
Michigan Reconnect features some of the hallmarks of Tennessee’s program. In Michigan, “success coaches” at the community colleges will serve as point persons for adults pursuing a credential under the program, Ebersole said. It’s also hiring another set of advisers, which the state calls “navigators,” to help students through the application process.
Tennessee Reconnect has people called navigators serving a similar function. “Financial aid is really like the make or breaks for some of these adults,” House said, “but I think to some extent the mentorship and the support are definitely equally important.”
Supportive policies at the college level
Community colleges must also be ready to serve more adult students, who often have competing work and family obligations that necessitate more flexibility at school. The pandemic hurt enrollment at public two-year institutions, including many in Michigan, with the sector’s headcount declining 10% year over year nationwide last fall.
Michigan’s community colleges expect the state’s two free college initiatives to jumpstart enrollment. Officials at Wayne County Community College in Detroit added a shortened term to let students take advantage of Michigan Reconnect as soon as possible rather than wait weeks or months for the regular summer term to begin.