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Free 2-Year Degrees For Those 25 And Up Passes House, Senate

March 17, 2020

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s program to pay for the two-year degree or industry-recognized certificate to those 25-years-old and older swiftly passed the House and Senate Thursday by wide margins.

The three bills that make up Michigan Reconnect moved Thursday as $35 million for the program was put into the supplemental spending bill that’s making its way to the Governor’s office. 
 
“This is going be a game-changer for thousands of disconnected workers in the state of Michigan. This will change the trajectory of families in every corner of the state,” said Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing). 
 
Michigan is expected to have an estimated 545,000 job openings in 2026 in sectors such as information technology and computer science, manufacturing, automotive, heath care and other professional trades. Modeled after a similar Tennessee program, Michigan Reconnect will become a central part of Michigan’s economic development strategy, said Rep. Ben Frederick (R-Owosso). 
 
“This a permanent investment in people and their ability to enhance their positioning for wages and jobs and entrepreneurship indefinitely,” he said. 
 
In order to qualify for this “last-dollar” tuition program, applicants need to exhaust other financial aid opportunities like Pell Grants. The program does not provide students with books and lab costs. Students will be responsible for paying whatever fees are required. It’s expected that in a many cases, the last-dollar payment will be less than the sum of the uncovered expenses. 
 
Frederick added the program is not a “blank check” for community college. Officials will still have to track where the students go and the outcomes they are seeing. At a time when the nation is seeing $1.6 trillion in outstanding student load debt, giving aspiring workers the tools to hold a sustainable job in a needed industry is an economic win for the state, he said. 
 
“There is literally no downside to this life-changing legislation,” said Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison). 
 
However, Rep. Brad Paquette (R-Niles) was one of a handful of legislators to road-trip to Tennessee to look into its program and he sees a couple issues. 
 
First, he sees the accountability measures attached to the program as hamstringing community colleges, taking away their uniqueness and ability to respond to localized needs. Michigan Reconnect is structured as a centralized, “one-size-fits-all” program that doesn’t work for K-12 schooling and doesn’t fit well with community colleges, either, he said. 
 
Also, Paquette is concerned that the “last dollar” stipulation will mean taxpayers will only end up paying the tuition of those who could afford it. The poor could receive Pell Grants for their schooling, he noted. 
 
Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville), one of two Senators to vote no, had similar concerns. 
 
“We are asking constituents who work hard and sacrificed and budgeted to attend community college to now pay for other people’s tuition simply because they turned 25 before graduating with their degree. It just doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “I think community college is already within reach for those willing to work for it, and if they have their own skin in the game, they will probably be more successful.” 
 
SB 268 passed the Senate 36-2 Thursday less than 24 hours after it was reported out of committee. Barrett and Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) were the two no votes. 
 
Likewise, HB 5576 and HB 5580 passed the day after they were kicked out of committee. 
 
The 14 House members who voted no on HB 5576 were Reps. Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Twp.), Sue Allor (R-Wolverine), Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair Twp.), Diana Farrington (R-Utica), Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron), Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton), Pamela Hornberger (R-Chesterfield Twp.) Steve Johnson (R-Wayland Twp.), Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), Matt Maddock (R-Milford), Luke Meerman (R-Polkton Twp.), Aaron Miller (R-Sturgis), Paquette and John Reilly (R-Oakland). 
 
HB 5580 passed 94-12 with the same no votes with the exception of Miller and Meerman, who voted yes.

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