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Grand Rapids Community College student Morgan Brink speaks at an August 2022 press conference about additional state funding for the Michigan Reconnect program. Grand Rapids Community College student Morgan Brink speaks at an August 2022 press conference about additional state funding for the Michigan Reconnect program. COURTESY OF GRCC

Reconnect reforms boost program flexibility; advocates seek to lower minimum age to 21

BY Sunday, January 15, 2023 05:19pm

Late last month, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a pair of bills into law that aim to boost participation in a free statewide community college tuition program by shifting reporting requirements and allowing more flexibility in class scheduling.

Overall, community college leaders report that the bipartisan-backed Michigan Reconnect program, which launched in early 2021, has been a resounding success. As of late last month, the state accepted more than 110,000 Reconnect applications, 22,000 students had enrolled and more than 1,500 had earned a credential.

Not only does the program incentivize adults 25 years or older to return to school for an associate degree or certificate, but it also is helping to stabilize declining enrollment levels at Michigan community colleges.

“But for Reconnect, our enrollments would be in a world of hurt, largely just due to some demographic problems we’re having as a de-populating state and particularly as it relates to the traditional K-12 student pipeline,” said Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “Each and every year we’re seeing a smaller graduating class of high school students, and we’ve experienced enrollment decline from those traditional-age students who are 18 or 19 years old. But despite that, our enrollments have held on average relatively steady year over year between the fall of 2021 and fall of 2022.”

Moreover, Johnson said the growing number of adult learners has led community colleges to revisit their student services strategies, such as providing wraparound support for services such as transportation, child care and “just flexibility around the community college experience.” 

“Their work responsibilities have forced colleges to think about those services from a different perspective,” she said.

The Reconnect program is approaching two years in existence, and functions similarly to another tuition assistance program — Futures for Frontliners — that sought to bolster workers’ skills in the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Reconnect program pays the cost of in-district tuition for adult learners at least 25 years old who have not yet earned a degree.

Last August, the state allocated an additional $6 million to provide wraparound grant support for students, such as covering expenses related to child care, internet access and transportation. 

In late December, Whitmer signed two bipartisan bills to reform some of the program’s reporting and scheduling requirements. Specifically, the bills create incentives for community colleges to offer credit for prior learning and give students more flexibility in how they meet a 12-credit requirement over the course of three semesters in a year. Johnson said one of the key changes is allowing adult learners who may be unprepared to return to school to revisit lower-level courses while also taking for-credit courses.

Looking ahead, the MCCA will back a proposal this legislative session to lower the minimum participation age from 25 to 21 years old. The proposal was initially included in the recent reforms but was removed by former state Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, Johnson said.

  

View from the colleges

As Lansing lawmakers found common ground on Reconnect, community college administrators are seeing the benefits.

“I think it has helped students not only access education but in this post-pandemic world to realize the ambitions they had come to the surface from limited opportunities that resulted from the pandemic,” said Chris Barry, dean of student services at West Shore Community College in Mason County. This past fall, WSCC had 60 Reconnect students enrolled out of a 1,000-person class.

Kalamazoo Valley Community College similarly had about 10 percent of its roughly 6,500-student fall enrollment participate in the Reconnect program. Of those Reconnect students, most are pursuing degrees related to business, health care, I.T. and culinary arts, said Alisha Cederberg, KVCC’s associate dean for student experience.

“It seems like having this tuition help really does help students come to programs they want to pursue,” Cederberg said.

As well, the program is “definitely helping enrollment” at KVCC, particularly when it launched after a year of learning loss in 2020 when high school classes didn’t matriculate at the same rate as previous classes.

“It really did offset some of the high school student losses we saw,” Cederberg said. “It’s a huge help as far as helping to offset some of the impacts of COVID and losing some of those traditional-age students just with the complications of education during the pandemic.”

Of the 2,584 Grand Rapids Community College students accepted into the Reconnect program for the winter semester that started Jan. 9, 1,141 are enrolled this winter while the rest can start in the summer or fall. About half of the enrolled students this winter are taking classes for the first time, and more than 400 are returning to complete their education after more than two years away. 

Read 1774 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 January 2023 17:21
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