Failure of community college access initiative frustrates state officials

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Capital News Service

LANSING — After a national effort to offer free college tuition failed, some business, nonprofit and government officials are frustrated over a similar lack of progress at the state level.

While much of the infrastructure debate is on rebuilding roads and bridges, human infrastructure is just as important, some argue. Many students chose to stay in the community and keep the education investment local, said Von Washington Jr., the executive director of communications for the Kalamazoo Promise, the first program in the nation to offer universal community college tuition.

“I used to go around looking for larger businesses to tell me how much they use the Kalamazoo Promise and still leverage it for their employees,” Washington said. “But what I found out is that many of our small businesses are the ones saying, ‘Hey, we decided to stay,’ ‘we decided to stay and be a part of this opportunity for us and our children.’”

Business officials say the issue of free tuition has evolved rapidly over the past decade, with support growing for pre-kindergarten to associates degree being the new goal in government-provided education. 

“That’s a conversation where there is widespread agreement on,” said Rob Fowler, the chief executive officer of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “This is real progress in this generation.”

Free tuition programs, if implemented statewide, could have a major impact on workforce participation according to small business groups. Michigan is experiencing the lowest labor participation rates on record, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which compares the employment rate with the rate of people able to work.

Economists say this is one of the many lingering effects of COVID-19.

“Anything that expands qualified people into the workforce has become a core business issue,” said Brian Calley, the president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “It’s risen to the top of our concerns.”

The importance of free college has not gone unnoticed by state government. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer early this year announced an initiative to raise the percentage of residents who have a skill certification or college degree to 60% by 2030.

These programs are much-needed to help address the worker shortage, according to business leaders.

“We have been supportive of programs that were just recently funded which are really adult-focused technical education.” Fowler said. “That gets to this technical and talent issue that we have immediately because most of those are people who are in the workforce who just need a new set of skills.”

One program launched in 2021 is MI Reconnect, which helps workers over 25 to receive free tuition or scholarships for skills training at community colleges.

The intention of the program is to help unemployed or underemployed workers build additional skills or find a new career, said Erica Quealy, the communications director for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

“Regional data shows that a lot of these careers require less than a four-year degree,” Quealy said. “So there’s a lot of rewarding career paths that can be achieved using a skills path or an associates degree.”  

Another program designed to boost degree completion rates in the state is Going Pro in Michigan, which partners with industry officials to promote training for students who are new to the professional trade fields and workers who need additional education.

The dual enrollment program is also available to high school students who are ready to take college-level classes. The state provides up to $600 for every college class taken by a student.

That’s enough to cover most community colleges, but not enough for a major university like Michigan State, according to Jeff McNeal, an educational consultant with the state Department of Education. 

Despite the availability of free tuition for students over 25, students interested in trades and students still in high school, Michigan does not offer universal access to community college for all residents, unlike more than a dozen other states.

The national effort fell victim to budget cuts to appease moderate Democrats who were concerned about its cost. Despite this concern, over a dozen other states led by Democrats and Republicans have funded similar programs at the state level. 

The first state to offer universal access to community college was Tennessee in 2014. It was based on the Kalamazoo Promise. 

California, Hawaii, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island and Oklahoma all have statewide college promise programs with roots in the movement which was started in Michigan.

Business officials look at the Tennessee Promise and Michigan’s lack of a comparable program as a major reason why development has moved from Michigan, Calley said. 

“Before they had all these tech programs and a huge pipeline of people that could get this sort of trade and technical education they would have never been in this conversation.” Calley said. “They put themselves in this conversation.”

Even though universal college access hasn’t reached Michigan yet, community activists in Kalamazoo like Washington, who helped establish the movement, say that for them to be a catalyst and a model for the nation “is just incredible,” and the “the more the merrier,” Washington said.

“We’re deciding as a country that education is important as it really is,” Washington said. “The more we provide barrier-free access to those individuals across the country who have struggled tremendously to be able to even have these opportunities, the better off we’re going to be.”

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