Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II says Michigan Reconnect has been effective, but there is ‘more work to do’ to improve access to college

Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist sitting in a circle with Grand Rapids Community College President Charles Lepper, students, administrators, and faculty members at the Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center.

The Michigan Reconnect program has successfully helped residents start or restart a college education, but state leaders “have more work to do” to make a degree or career certificate within reach for others, Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist II said Monday.

Gilchrist conducted a roundtable discussion with Grand Rapids Community College President Charles Lepper, students, administrators, and faculty members at the Wisner-Bottrall Applied Technology Center, saying he wanted to hear how the program has been effective, but also how the state can continue to make changes and help more residents.

“We want everyone to be able to determine their own path,” Gilchrist said, noting that additional support services would help the program expand, and help students with financial obstacles and other challenges. “We want to help people finish what they’ve started.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to discuss Michigan Reconnect during her State of the State Address on Wednesday.

The Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners programs cover the cost of in-district tuition for community college students. Lawmakers last year approved an additional $6 million to help pay for other expenses, such as daycare or transportation.

Reconnect, launched in Feb. 2021, is aimed at students 25 and older who have not yet earned a degree. Frontliners was available in 2020 for residents who worked in essential fields during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown.

The two are part of Gov. Whitmer’s Sixth by 30 goal, hoping to have at least 60 percent of the state’s adults have a college degree or career certificate by 2030.  Gilchrist said the state already is close to 50 percent in just the last two years.

“The pace is good,” he said. “But we have to keep our focus on it.”

Andre Broussard used the Reconnect program to enroll in GRCC’s Computer Support Job Training program. He recently was awarded the first-ever MTEC Leadership Award, which recognizes a student who has gone above and beyond expectation.

“My experience has been very great,” he told Gilchrist. “This took me from being an over-the-road truck driver into now, in IT, as a computer support technician with Magic Steel. This basically gave me a second chance, to redefine what I want to do. This is something I wanted to do since I was a child, and it is coming to fruition now.”

Jodi Holland is a first-generation college student, who came to GRCC at age 58 to gain skills to follow her dreams of being a baker – and also to inspire her grandchildren.

“When I started school, I thought I could become a baker, but now, I’m a pastry chef,” she told Gilchrist. “I’ve learned so much at school. Not just about baking, but about how to manage employees and manage my time.”

Employers have said Michigan’s job market continues to change after the pandemic. Many older students are looking for additional training to advance in their careers, or to start new careers. Employers are looking for people with skills – and also ready to gain more skills by heading back to college.

Michael Welch, vice president of operations for the Grand Rapids-based Magic Steel, said he hopes the state can boost partnerships with employers and colleges.

“As an employer, we sometimes struggle to find people with the right skills,” he said. “This program has helped me get people in the door and be productive, and then we can build from there.”

As of September, 9.5 percent of all state Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners students were at GRCC.

Of the winter semester that started this month, 9, 2,584 students were accepted to GRCC through Reconnect, and 1,141 are enrolled for the winter semester. Others can start in the summer or in the fall.

About half of the enrolled Reconnect students — 556 – are taking classes for the first time. And 464 students are returning after more than two years away to complete their education.

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