Students, lawmakers push for bipartisan college affordability bills championed by Whitmer

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Efforts to tackle community college affordability in Michigan have stalled since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer highlighted the issue in her State of the State address in February.

State Reps. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) and Ben Frederick (R-Owosso) spoke at a press conference Tuesday about their bipartisan House bills in an effort to refocus attention at the end of the legislative year.

They were joined by members of Rise, a student-driven, California-based advocacy group that aims to expand students’ access to higher education by working with policymakers. The news conference spotlighted Kennedy’s House Bill 4464, the MI Opportunity Scholarship, and Frederick’s HB 4456, the MI Reconnect program. Both bills are currently under consideration in the House Appropriations Committee. Whitmer announced these programs in her State of the State address. 

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Kennedy said the MI Opportunity Scholarship bill would ensure that high school graduates can better afford community college programs in order to make obtaining at least an associate’s degree more realistic for them.  

Per the bill, last-dollar tuition assistance — aid designed to eliminate unmet financial needs — would be provided to eligible students for up to three years of community college or until a student earns 60 semester credits. Kennedy said that lightening those initial financial burdens could also put students in a better place to complete a community college degree, and eventually transfer elsewhere to extend their education. 

“Students are expected to pursue a degree post-high school education or a skilled trade just to compete with their peers in our local and global workforce,” Kennedy said. “But also, they’re often caught in an economic trap where they have to work two minimum-wage jobs just to get by, which makes educational advancement and attainment even more difficult.”

Whitmer has asked the Michigan Legislature to work toward expanding access to community colleges and to not overlook low- and middle-income students, especially those pursuing careers in skilled trades.

 

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“Earlier this year, Gov. Whitmer and a bipartisan coalition members in both the House and Senate came together to call for the beginning of a new chapter in Michigan’s story,” Kennedy said. “It is time for us to move forward and make this initiative a reality.” 

Frederick talked about MI Reconnect, a bill aimed at assisting adults who face financial challenges if they decide to go back to school.

“This legislation is focused on those 25 years and older, who for whatever reason or life circumstance, have not been able to obtain a full secondary credential or degree, and often face additional barriers going back to school,” Frederick said. 

Rise members at the conference said the bipartisan support of the bills is promising. 

Carter Oselett, a first-generation college student and organizing member for Rise Michigan, said college affordability is a crisis, especially in Michigan. He spoke about how he has multiple jobs — including delivering pizza on the side, in addition to classes and work — in order to afford college fees.

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“When I started this work, I met a lot of students this semester who have worse affordability stories than I do,” said Oselett, who attends Michigan State University. “I’m lucky that I can get by, that I can make rent most of the time.”

But he has heard stories from other students who regularly donate plasma to pay for housing, tuition and food, or they stay with friends because they can’t afford on-campus housing.

“I’ve talked to students who couldn’t afford campus housing and their tuition, so they stayed on their friend’s dorm floor for the entire year,” Oselett recalled. “Students who sometimes can’t afford groceries or a meal plan on campus or had Pop-Tarts for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Amina Elamin, another member of Rise Michigan, spoke a little to her previous involvement in college affordability movements. She said getting Kennedy’s and Frederick’s attention on the issue has been beneficial.

“Two years ago, nobody was talking about this. And now we’re this far. That gives you hope, even if it’s not this year,” Elamin said. “At least it’s there and they know the need.

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Elamin first took courses at Grand Rapids Community College before transferring to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on a scholarship. 

“I see kids that don’t even want to pursue what they’re good at just because they can’t afford it,” Elamin said. “I’m very passionate about this because they’re doing something good and if it [the bills] passes, that means a better future not only for my daughter, but for other people that really deserve a chance.”