LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is netting key support from the business community and some Republican lawmakers for her large-scale plans to provide debt-free tuition to high school graduates and older adults who want to learn new job skills.
The development is a boost for one of the Democrat's signature policy goals – increasing the number of working-age adults with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 60% by 2030, from 45% now.
Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley pledged the group's "full, unequivocal" backing of her proposals, known as Michigan Reconnect and the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship. Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley praised Whitmer's "visionary leadership."
Bills to create the two programs were introduced in recent days after Whitmer unveiled them in her earlier State of the State speech and budget proposal. She is asking the GOP-led Legislature to swiftly authorize tuition-free community college or technical training for nontraditional students – those 25 and older without an associate's or bachelor's degree. The Reconnect program would benefit an estimated 51,000 students starting this summer and cost $110 million over two years.
Whitmer's Opportunity Scholarship initiative would provide graduating high school students in the class of 2020 and beyond three years or 60 credit hours of tuition at a community college, with no means testing, or a two-year $2,500 annual scholarship to those attending a four-year college or university. The latter would only qualify with a minimum 3.0 GPA and a household income under $80,000.
Both the Reconnect and Opportunity programs would cover tuition or mandatory fees not already offset by need-based federal Pell Grants or the state's tuition program for Medicaid recipients.
Whitmer said regardless of whether people enroll in union apprenticeships, community college or four-year schools, "every one of us has a path, and we are going to make those paths real and available."
Republican legislative leaders have been cautious about the two proposals – including their cost – at a time that the concept of "free" or "debt-free" college is becoming rooted in liberal politics nationally, most notably in the Democratic presidential race. But Studley said the reports about Tennessee's initiatives, which were spearheaded by a GOP governor, are "very, very positive."
"This is not an entitlement program. This is not welfare," he said after getting behind Whitmer's plans Thursday during an announcement with lawmakers from both parties, labor leaders and others at Lansing Community College's precision machining lab in nearby Delta Township. Community colleges, a linchpin to vocational training, are seen as crucial to efforts to fill many jobs that are going unfilled.
The emphasis on addressing the "talent gap" is nothing new. Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder increased spending on trades training, technical education and career planning. In his final year in office, he also ushered through a $100 million plan aimed at better preparing students for in-demand careers in information technology, computer science, health care and manufacturing.
But Calley, the lieutenant governor under Snyder, said "what's been missing in the past is scale." Whitmer's plans could impact residents and the state's future economy on a "mass scale," he said.
Sen. Ken Horn, a Frankenmuth Republican, is sponsoring the bill that would aid people age 25 and older.
"We pay attention to the people that are in our (education) system, but what about those that have kind of drifted away? The disconnected folks that just want something better for their families? We want them back," he said.
The Opportunity Scholarship program would not take effect until the fiscal year beginning in October 2020. It would be implemented in two phases, starting initially with community college students enrolling that fall. The Department of Talent and Economic Development would add four-year students later.
It would cost $108 million to fund more than 44,000 Opportunity Scholarship recipients in year one, according to preliminary estimates from the state budget office. In year two, spending would rise to $190 million to cover 76,000 students.
Both Whitmer and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, a Flint Democrat and sponsor of the college scholarship legislation, said it is structured so students have "skin in the game." They would have to maintain good academic standing, continuous enrollment and – for those at community colleges – meet with on-campus advisers.
Ananich, a former teacher, said when he taught he knew too many promising young people who chose not to go to college rather than saddle themselves with debt.
"It's a tough decision so many face," he said. "We're taking steps to erase that burden."