Michigan Reconnect gives adults second chance at college dream
Marcheta Beal didn't know where the money would come from this time.
The 53-year-old Benton Harbor resident and Lake Michigan College student already had used her lifetime allotment of Pell grants. A Federal loan seemed her next best option, but her grades suffered following her daughter's untimely death, and now she no longer met the requirements.
"I was stressed," Beal said. "I didn't know how I was going to pay for the classes I needed. I lost my financial aid, and I didn't have that out-of-pocket money."
That's when Beal discovered Michigan Reconnect. The state program launched Feb. 2 by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity allows Michigan residents age 25 and older the chance to attend local community colleges tuition-free, as long as they have a high school diploma or equivalent and haven't already graduated from college.
"When I found out about Michigan Reconnect, it was a tremendous blessing," Beal said. "It took a great burden off of me and has allowed me to push forward. There are a lot of people who don't go to college because they can't afford to go. That should never be the reason someone cannot get a higher education."
Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to make it easier and more affordable for residents like Beal, who are age 25 or older without a college degree, to earn a tuition-free associate degree or skills certificate at their local community college.
The program requires students to apply for federal financial aid to participate. The state pays the remainder of tuition costs not covered by federal grants. For students who choose to attend an out-of-district community college, Reconnect will pay the in-district portion of tuition. Adult students already enrolled in community college, and students who have completed a certificate program in the past but not their degree also are eligible for the scholarship. Students have four years to earn their degrees.
"This is a new opportunity for a lot of students," Lake Michigan College Director, Admissions and Recruitment Jeremy Schaeffer said. "That's why we are seeing a good number of students coming back. They may have started college right out of high school but didn’t reach their goals, and now they are coming to Lake Michigan College for a fresh start."
The program is a part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's goal to have 60 percent of the state's residents earn a skill certificate or college degree by 2030. The state labor department estimates that there are about 4.1 million people age 25 and older in Michigan without a college degree. According to the Detroit News, 41 percent of Michigan's working-age residents have an associate degree or higher, ranking Michigan 31st nationally for the percentage of residents who have attained higher education.
The state's strategy is to train residents with skills for high-paying, high-demand jobs, increase the talent pool to attract more business, and improve residents' incomes, financial stability, and quality of life.
Labor department officials expected demand to be high for the Reconnect program, setting a goal of 60,000 applicants by Memorial Day. Instead, more than 70,000 people have applied so far, and more applications are coming in every day.
The impact Reconnect students are having on LMC's enrollment numbers is already starting to show. Schaeffer said that Summer new enrollment figures are up nearly 50 percent from 2020. To date, 275 students have been approved to enroll at LMC through Reconnect for the Summer term, with 300 more approved for Fall. Another 600 students are in the process of being approved, and Schaeffer expects that number will only grow.
That's why LMC is also looking at ways to help these students succeed.
"We are seeing these large numbers of adult students who want the state to reach the goal of 60 by 30, which is going to impact Michigan in creating a greater experience for all," Schaeffer said. "Since many of these students haven't been to school in years, we don't want them to come in, take their first class, and be caught off guard. We are working throughout all of our student services so we can help them holistically. It's not about just getting people in the door; it's about helping them reach their goals. These students are reinvigorated. They are excited to be able to show not only themselves but their children that it's never too late to follow their dreams."
Beal counts herself among them. A mother of nine with 23 grandchildren, Beal hopes to use the Reconnect scholarship to complete the LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) to RN (Registered Nurse) pathway in LMC's competitive nursing program.
Although she received her LPN license from Brown Mackie College and has worked as both an LPN and an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), becoming the first of her 11 siblings to earn a college degree has remained a life-long goal.
"My mom turns 91 this year," Beal said. "She always wanted to be a teacher and never had the opportunity, but she is the best teacher I have ever had. I am doing this for her. I am doing this for me. I am doing this for my kids and grandkids."
Beal, who has worked at several nursing homes, said she wants to open an adult day-care facility after earning her degree.
"I've had patients say to me, 'Would you take me home and take care of me?' I would take them home if I could," she said. "My heart is with people. I find such joy in caring for those who cannot care for themselves. It's my duty; it's my honor to do that for them. That's my mission, and this is my chance. I feel like this is finally my time, and I don't have any more time to waste."