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Michigan is paving the way for people to return to college or seek a professional trade. Here’s how.

MICHIGAN—For Michiganders who skipped out on going to college immediately after graduating high school or who are looking to take their degree one step further, the opportunity to do so has never been easier. 

It’s part of a new push to reinforce Michigan’s economic backbone: the middle class. 

Just ask Shane Lewis, the director of admissions at Oakland University. He has seen first-hand how more people 25 years old and up are making the decision to return to school.

“We’re seeing students either who are shifting careers or who are finding that in their line of work that they are looking for that higher level credential so that they can, perhaps, you know, move forward in their career, earn those higher-level positions, or whatever their particular degree or sorry career path may require them,” Lewis told The ‘Gander.  

A New Boost for Michigan’s Middle Class 

In the past two years, Michigan has launched the Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect programs. Both aim to assist people to get into a community college, where they can earn a degree with the hopes that will launch them into the workforce. 

In August, Michigan announced it was funneling more money toward those programs with the hopes of boosting the middle class. Michigan’s latest proposal to address those issues and build up the middle class takes a three-pronged approach to make these improvements, putting $722 million toward growing the middle class by educating more workers, $651 million to support small businesses and create better jobs, and $800 million to build housing and invest in communities. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in August that growing the middle class comes down to educating workers and expanding resources to them, including Michigan Reconnect and Future for Frontliners.

“Since day one, I have been laser-focused on putting Michiganders first and tackling kitchen-table issues with real, tangible solutions,” Whitmer said. “As we emerge from the once-in-a-century pandemic, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to use billions in federal resources to grow Michigan’s middle class, support small businesses, and invest in our communities. With the $2.1 billion in proposals I have laid out, we can raise wages, give people paths to high-skill jobs, grow start-ups, build clean energy infrastructure, and do so much more. 

“I’m utilizing every resource and ensuring that we continue to take bold action to help families, communities, and small businesses thrive,” Whitmer continued. “Together, we can usher in [a] new era of prosperity for Michigan.”  

Demand in Michigan’s Growing Economy 

Michigan had the fastest growing economy in the Midwest over the first three months of 2021, has an unemployment rate lower than the national average, and a $3.5 billion budget surplus after projecting a deficit, according to the Whitmer administration. 

And while that’s all positive, it might be getting even better. Michigan’s manufacturing industry continues to thrive, leading the country in automotive manufacturing, appearing near the tops of several lists on job creation, business climate, and foreign direct investment. 

It isn’t all sunshine and daisies, though. Many jobs in Michigan and across the country don’t pay enough. Sometimes, there simply aren’t enough workers to fill open jobs. In some cases, there aren’t enough workers with the skills necessary to fill a job. 

That’s why, as Lewis explains, many Michiganders on their way to college for the first time after spending a portion of their life in the workforce aim for well-paying, financially stable careers. 

“I definitely think that’s attractive to students, especially if they’re just starting off at the associate’s degree level, that they’re going to be able to get a return on the investment,” he said. “So, I certainly would think that that’s what students are looking for, that they’re going to be able to take this degree and then turn that into a higher paying job, which is a lot of times why students are choosing to return to work again. 

“Maybe they want that opportunity to advance in their current field or maybe they want to break out into a new field because there’s the sense that they will have higher earnings from that,” Lewis added.

“Once in a Generation Opportunity”

So, why are more people making the choice to return to school later in life or to attend after putting it off for so long? 

Some universities, such as Oakland University, have created programs to help students who continue their education. Take, for example, the university’s most popular program among adult learners: its nursing completion program. The program is tailored for students who receive their associate degrees in nursing from a community college and, in turn, are transferring to a larger institution such as Oakland University to earn a bachelor’s degree. 

“I think that’s where we’ve seen a lot of growth recently for a number of reasons,” Lewis said. “First of all, a lot of the hospital systems are requiring these registered nurses to go back and complete that bachelor’s degree, they want their nurses to all have earned the bachelor’s degree in nursing. And so that is one reason we’ve seen an influx of students in that program.”

More recently, the state has made it a lot easier through a pair of programs paving the way for Michiganders who took unconventional paths to make it to college, too. 

The state recognizes that and has boosted funding for its Going Pro credentialing program, which aims to help people move toward careers in professional trades. Michigan also has made other investments in programs that offer work experience to Michiganders earning their GEDs and help those reentering society after incarceration transition into the workforce.  

Michigan’s plan builds on the passage of the American Rescue Plan and helps provide a “once in a generation opportunity” to bring transformational change in the state, according to Susan Corbin, the director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity in Michigan. 

“Governor Whitmer’s plan will create good-paying jobs and address longstanding structural challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic while expanding economic opportunity and prosperity for all Michiganders,” Corbin said.