After touring Muskegon Community College’s Health and Wellness Center Monday morning, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer touted her administration’s plans to make higher education increasingly affordable, close the state’s skills gap, and connect residents with high-paying jobs.
“We in Michigan, we’re in the place people used to move to from around the world for opportunity,” Whitmer told a crowd of local lawmakers, students, educators, and others gathered at the Health and Wellness Center that opened this past November. “Because in Michigan you could get a good job that would pay you well enough.”
Now, Whitmer continued, the state lags in terms of residents attaining post-secondary degrees and Michiganders don’t have the skills needed for good-paying positions.
“When we look at where Michigan ranks compared to the rest of the world and the skills gap, we’re dramatically behind,” the governor said.
To address this, Whitmer announced initiatives in her State of the State address to increase the number of Michiganders with post-secondary degrees from 44 percent to 60 percent of residents between the ages of 16 and 64 by 2030, offer debt-free community college, and provide tuition assistance for students at four-year colleges and universities.
“It’s essential we ensure everyone has a real path to skills, whether it’s going to a phenomenal community college like this one, going into the trades, or going to a four-year college,” Whitmer said at MCC.
During the State of the State, the governor announced the creation of “Michigan Reconnect,” a program that would train adults seeking in-demand skills to land a new job or advance in the jobs they currently have. The program too would aim to connect Michigan businesses with qualified candidates for the growing number of jobs that are currently unfilled.
Phyllis Watson-Loudermill, a Muskegon resident and the owner of HerCo, a construction company that works to employ people of color and women in the construction industry, said she’s pleased the governor is focusing on the skills gap. Currently, Watson-Loudermill, who too is the president of the NAACP Lake-Newaygo branch, is working to expand efforts to connect West Michigan residents with the skills they need to access jobs. On the east side of the state, Watson-Loudermill, HerCo, and the Laborers’ International Union Local 1191 have successfully partnered on a program called “Trading Places,” which provides prisoners with skills training and places them in trade jobs following their release. Watson-Loudermill would like to see efforts like this grow in West Michigan.
“The skills gap is not just a gap in opportunity, but a gap in relationships,” she said. “You have to be able to change people’s mindsets and create a way of building relationships. When you have an industry that’s predominantly men, and predominantly white men, you have to educate them and the community trying to merge in.”
To tackle college affordability, Whitmer announced during the State of the State the creation of the “MI Opportunity Scholarship,” which would allow students who have lived in Michigan for at least one year and are in good academic standing to attend community college tuition-free for two years. As part of the scholarship, the state too would pick up the costs for the students’ mandatory fees. In order to access the scholarship, a student would have to start community college in the fall after their high school graduation.
The MI Opportunity Scholarship too would provide tuition assistance to students whose families earn $80,000 a year or less and are planning to attend a four-year college or university. Whitmer’s proposal would provide $2,500 for the first two years of the students’ schooling at the four-year institutions. To access the scholarship for the four-year schools, students would have to have at least a B average.
The state legislature would have to approve the scholarship before its anticipated launch in 2020. Whitmer did not detail how much the state would need to pay to offer the scholarship program; that number will be included in the governor’s proposed budget that’s slated to be released March 5.
Muskegon Community College students embraced the governor’s initiatives and emphasized barriers to affordable education must be torn down.
“I got financially beaten down and had to leave Michigan State because of the cost,” said Jeremy Wahr, a former MCC student and staff writer on The Bay Window, the community college’s student newspaper. Wahr attended the governor’s talk at MCC.
Whitmer’s proposal to provide financial assistance to students at four-year colleges would help—but it’s not a cure-all, Wahr said.
“The $2,500 would help, but I’d still owe money,” Wahr said. “It’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot more that needs to be done.”
Erika Gill, also a former MCC student and Bay Window staff writer, too recently had to leave her four-year college, Grand Valley State University, because she could no longer afford to study there. If Gill could attend school without worrying about finances, she noted she’d be able to pursue a job she loved—instead of one that solely provides financial security—once she completed college.
“After school, I wouldn’t worry about getting a high-paying job,” Gill said at Monday’s event, referring to a scenario in which college was more affordable. “I would focus on getting something that would make me happy.”
Stephanie Kennert, the current editor of The Bay Window, is a recipient of the Muskegon Promise scholarship, which provides local students with two years of free tuition at MCC or Baker College.
“But for a lot of the friends I have, the [Promise scholarship] qualifications don’t meet what they need,” Kennert said. “You have to have a 3.5 GPA or higher; if you’re a working student, a 3.5 isn’t necessarily something that’s attainable. Maybe we need to lower those qualifications.”