Why Michigan needs tuition-free higher education options

By PAULA HERBART/President – Michigan Education Association

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how connected we are to the world around us. Nowhere has this been more evident than in our reliance on essential, frontline workers who staff our hospitals, keep our communities running and, yes, educate our students.

This public health crisis has also driven home what many have known for some time: There is a direct correlation between education, income and the jobs we perform. So it should come as no surprise that we at the Michigan Education Association were gratified when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship program to help frontline workers pursue their education.

Today, Michigan ranks 36th nationally in education attainment and is well below average in the Great Lakes region. States such as Ohio and Wisconsin are already racing ahead of Michigan to fill their talent pipelines even though 75% of all Michigan jobs will require at least some education beyond high school. It’s a well-known fact that education promotes economic growth because it provides skills that increase employment opportunities and income.

MEA wholeheartedly endorses the Futures for Frontliners program, applications for which are due by the end of the month.

But that’s just part of a larger effort Michigan is undertaking to increase the number of working-age adults who have a skill certificate or college degree. Known as Sixty by 30, this statewide initiative is designed to increase the number of working-age Michigan residents with a degree or skills certificate to 60% by 2030. In doing so, Michigan will:

►Close the skills gap needed for the good-paying jobs of the future;
►Increase opportunity and give Michigan residents greater access to the education and skills that create opportunities for better jobs and bigger paychecks; and,
►Make our state more competitive for inclusive economic growth.
Providing greater access to tuition-free education has been well received by the public. It’s one way we can help residents like Roberto Rivera, a food service attendant at a Detroit public high school who wants to become a teacher and a coach.

“This is a second chance in life to achieve a goal that I wanted to accomplish when I was younger,” Rivera said. “It will allow my wife and me to support our family without having to worry about a long term debt.”

Ensuring workers like Roberto have access to a higher education is essential, and reducing that cost is key. The demand is great, which is why Futures for Frontliners is just one of the programs worth noting that can help us get to Sixty by 30.

Another is the Michigan Reconnect Program that will provide a tuition-free path to an in-demand industry certificate or associate’s degree for Michigan adults age 25 and older. This pathway was created with bipartisan support in this year’s state budget, with more information expected in 2021.

Yet another is the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship that offers two paths to help graduating high school students obtain a post-secondary credential — offering them either two years of tuition-free education at a community college, or two years of tuition assistance at a public or not-for-profit four-year university for students demonstrating financial need. The state Legislature still must act on funding this scholarship program announced by the governor.

With vaccines on the horizon and the end of this pandemic in sight, Michigan needs a plan to secure our economic future and cultivate tomorrow’s promise through educating our youth. Embracing Sixty by 30 and investing in programs to ensure higher education is attainable for every Michigan resident is essential to that goal.

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