How a free community college program for COVID-19 frontliners is evolving

In the late ‘70s, Mark Robey’s father had a stroke, which caused him to drop out of Georgia Tech and take a job in retail to help his family. At the time, the money was good, so he continued in that line of work for 40 years. 

However, the years of hassles and more demanding goals took their toll, and he started to consider leaving retail. Then COVID-19 hit and he was laid off. Robey took that as a sign from the universe to move on. Fortunately, his son also told him about Future for Frontliners and now, at age 59, he is back in school and finishing the journey.

Future for Frontliners was a limited-time program that offered Robey and the 120,000 eligible Michiganders who went to work during the pandemic, two years of free community college. Those eligible worked in essential services in the medical field, at nursing homes, grocery stores, sanitation services, and in manufacturing.

Robey chose to attend Henry Ford College (HFC) on the program, studying supply chain management, and will graduate in 2022.

“I think the idea is really awesome,” says Robey. “I will forever be grateful for what [HFC] has done for me.” 

The program has now closed, but Michigan Reconnect has since taken its place. The new initiative offers tuition-free community college to Michigan residents 25 or older with no college degree, both new to enroll and those completing courses. Currently, the number of Michiganders with a skill certificate or degree is 49 percent. The goal of Michigan Reconnect is to get it to 60 percent by 2030. 

Reconnect scholarships are accepted at all Michigan community colleges and, if the recipient is already studying, the program pays the remaining balance of tuition and mandatory fees after other state and federal financial aid have been applied. For those who choose to attend an out-of-district community college, Reconnect will pay the in-district portion of tuition. To be eligible for Michigan Reconnect a resident must meet the age requirement, have lived in Michigan for a year or more, have a high school diploma, and have not yet completed a college degree of any kind. 

According to Ava Attari, Program Administrator for the Sixty by 30 initiative with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, the $30 million dollar Futures for Frontliners program acted like a pilot program for Michigan Reconnect. She says the new program, announced in February 2021, was actually planned before Future for Frontliners, but COVID-19 delayed the roll-out. It was a long-term plan to shrink the skills gap, which Governor Gretchen Whitmer mentioned as a priority in her 2019 address.

Approximately 20,000 Michiganders who applied but didn’t qualify for Futures for Frontliners and are 25 years or older will automatically be eligible for tuition-free college assistance with Michigan Reconnect. 

A big potential impact

If successful, both programs could improve the lives of Michiganders across metro Detroit and the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a high school degree earned on average $38,792 in 2019. Those with an associate degree earned $46,124 and those with a bachelor’s degree $64,896.

Nearly 530,000 Michigan jobs and 47,000 annual openings in the professional trades are projected by 2028, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Community Colleges will play a significant role in filling those positions. While they offer associate degrees and transfer opportunities to four-year schools, they also provide job training programs in manufacturing, nursing, and medical technical training.

With all the focus on four-year degrees, it is often overlooked that technical training, associate degrees, and skilled labor are major factors businesses look at for investing, especially in programming and IT, says Kurt Metzger, principal at Kurt R. Metzger & Associates. One of the reasons is the skills learned are more flexible than a bachelor’s degree.

Metzger, a past director of Data Drive Detroit and WSU's Michigan Metropolitan Information Center, points out that community colleges build relationships with businesses, which not only creates a pipeline to employment but also keeps job training up to date. For example, in metro Detroit, where manufacturing is still a major part of the economy, getting a job in that field often requires two years of training, and community colleges can provide that.   

Requiring a degree to work in manufacturing is relatively new. Due to the history of easy access to manufacturing jobs in the past, some people dislike academia, Metzger says, not because they have an issue with learning, but with having to pay and potentially go into debt.

Michigan Reconnect eliminates that burden.

Connecting the Dots

The most recent numbers indicate 43 percent of Michigan Reconnect enrollments in the first semester are at HFC, Macomb Community College, and Wayne County Community College District. To make sure they are offering the right programs, the state and schools worked together to make adjustments, even as students enrolled. Concerns were brought up during the regular town halls between the state and the schools.

This adaptive nature is something Robey really appreciated about the program. While he did not have much contact with the government, he found his HFC to be very receptive to his concerns. The president of the college even responded to an email he sent about clarifying his finances.

It may sound odd that the recipient of a free college program would be worried about finances, but there’s a good reason. Full payment is only for schools within an individual’s designated zone. Robey’s school was supposed to be Wayne County Community College District, but he opted for HFC after researching all the community colleges in the area and being particularly impressed with the student outreach and open communication there. However, there was still a funding gap for out-of-district students, with books and lab fees not covered by the program, an issue the school has since worked on.

Robey also attended the monthly online forums the school has for students with the vice president and faculty, often voicing how he believes the program could operate better, and suggesting increased communication. 

More than 36 percent of the state’s community college students are 25 or older, according to the Michigan Community College Association, with external responsibilities such as family or employment. The need to navigate those responsibilities and attending in-person classes can be difficult and one thing that has made the program a success at HFC was the flexibility of online classes and lectures, says Holly Diamond, vice president of student affairs. During the pandemic, HFC worked to better replicate in-person learning in its online classes. According to Diamond, it also allowed more time for students to complete coursework.

Robey agrees, and says he doubts he would be as far along if he had to attend in-person rather than online classes. Driving to a physical building every day is another hassle for people with complete lives.

“For a lot of us with families, it is almost impossible to do,” he says.

Mark Robey knows first-hand the pressures students face balancing studies and external responsibilities.

Meeting student's where they're at

The need to accommodate real-world conditions is a common one. The most common reasons given for dropping out or forgoing college entirely are money issues, work, and family or other responsibilities.

“I remember that family responsibility and cost were big disincentives to spend the time necessary to get the degree,” says Metzger. “Also, a number of respondents did not feel the sacrifices they needed to make to get the degree would result in enough extra salary to make it worthwhile.”

These challenges only compound as people get older.

According to Metzger, the most common reasons people forgo college or drop out are money, work, family, or other outside commitments. With added life experiences for those over 25, he believes the flexibility of community colleges, and the Future for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect programs, help overcome these obstacles. 

HFC also has programs in place that help students complete their degree. For example, when a student needs a credit hour for a class that is full, the school reaches out to other community colleges to see if they have the class open. If they do, the student can attend and then transfer the credit back.

In addition, there are study counseling programs for those who are interested in advancing their education but are not sure what path to take. HFC also offers a $25 Tuition Assistance Grant, which is available to the 65 to 70 percent of students who are out-of-district, providing an additional $25 per credit hour.
Going back to school later in life can certainly be daunting, but Diamond has found older students tend to be more focused, and even do better than their younger peers. 

As he worked toward his degree, Robey says he found his new life experience helped him make better decisions and made things easier, something his teachers mentioned to him. Just like many younger students, he says he also found himself considering more possibilities he could do with his degree in the future.

Michigan Reconnect has been a success for HFC. In its first semester, this summer it had 12,000 applicants, an increase of 30 percent from previous years, and 13,000 are already signed up for the fall. 

“I have been in higher education for 30 years, and I have never seen anything like this before,” says Diamond.

According to Diamond, the students this semester are about 50-50 split between job training and transfer paths. For those on the career path, there are skilled instructors, job placement programs and internships, and job fairs to get the students working in their fields as soon as they graduate. HFC has also reached out to more businesses to accommodate more students and, according to Diamond, those in the automotive program are guaranteed a job. 

“I have a relative I am trying to convince to take the program,” she says. “I can see so much good.”

For those who plan to transfer, there are scholarship programs set up with Wayne State University (WSU), Eastern Michigan University, and Oakland University for Michigan Reconnect students. Those interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree after obtaining their associate degree through the program will be considered for a $4,000 transfer award – $2,000 per academic year for two consecutive years beginning the term of admission.

“Anything to minimize the financial burden would be helpful,” said Ahmad Ezzeddine, associate vice president of educational outreach and international programs and interim associate vice president for enrollment management who spearheaded the program. He sees it as one of many steps to strengthen ties with community colleges as well, to bring more students into WSU.

Increasing community college transfers has been a priority for years, unsurprising since 40 percent of WSU’s students came from community colleges, and 45 percent of its graduates.    

“Students who come from community colleges do better in some corners than our native students,” says Ezzeddine.

Robey is already planning to take advantage of the scholarship to Eastern and plans to graduate from the same school as his children did with a bachelor’s degree in technology management.

A comparison

Not all schools in the area have seen the same boosts in enrollment as HFC. Not far away, in Livonia, Schoolcraft saw an average 6 percent decrease in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schoolcraft students have a preference for in-person learning and may be waiting for the pandemic to die down and that may be part of the difference, says Melissa Schultz, chief student enrollment officer. In addition, many job training courses would be more difficult at home.

“Now that the protections have been lifted, we offer an increased number of face-to-face classes,” she says.

Schultz also points out the campus mostly attracts 18- to 24-year-old students, who would not be eligible for Michigan Reconnect. 

Just like HFC, Schoolcraft increased its online learning potential, is part of the conversations with the state government, has access to WSU’s scholarships, and has access to state resources for students.

Schultz believes the number of Reconnect students will grow and easing financial complications will bring more students into community colleges. 

“Anytime you can open financial opportunity it is a good thing,” says Schultz.

Schoolcraft has classes that transfer to all major universities and provides information on what is needed for each school and major. It also has job training in careers in the manufacturing and medical fields, which are in growing demand in Michigan.

They also opened a new manufacturing center recently and have begun to see interest in the fall semester for classes like Brewing Distillation Technology, Computer Information Systems, Welding, Fire Technology, Manufacturing, Plastic Technology, Radiologic Technology (a new program), and Culinary Arts.
With nearly 530,000 jobs and 47,000 annual openings in the professional trades projected in seven years, there are abundant opportunities. 

Of the 15,500 Future for Frontliners participants in the winter semester, 600 have already graduated with an associate degree. The state is still calculating the numbers for the Michigan Reconnect enrollment numbers, but so far it looks promising.

Metzger hopes getting more people into the program, out into the job market and sharing their success stories will go a long way to alleviating one of the biggest complaints he hears from companies looking to invest in metro Detroit – lack of education. 

Diamond believes these success stories could have a major impact on those outside the program. Increased visibility of the power of skilled labor, associate degrees, and cheaper classes could push high schools, which often focus heavily on four-year schools, to make young people more aware of all their options.

Through Michigan Reconnect, Metzger sees a strong value in the economic opportunity community colleges provide.

"I am far more impressed by the skills of a plumber or electrician than of the guy walking around the college with a PhD," he says. 

Interested participants can apply for Michigan Reconnect here.
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