As one of the founders of the Campaign for Free College Tuition in 2013, I argued strongly that historical inevitability and economic necessity were reasons enough to engage in what at the time seemed like a long-shot cause. But along with the other founders, I knew that whenever the American economy had undergone fundamental change, the nation had responded by expanding and refashioning the public education system to meet the new demands of the workplace.
Universal free primary education was established in virtually all the states by the Civil War to reflect the demands of a burgeoning agricultural and trades economy, followed in the years after World War I by a growing movement to create universal free high schools to meet the workforce requirements of the American industrial economy. By 2013, projections that the majority of new jobs, and almost all those paying good wages, would require education beyond a high school diploma appeared to signal the coming of the next great transformation in American education—universal free post-secondary studies.
But historical predictions do not a movement make. The question that remained unanswered when CFCT was launched was: Is there real demand from business leaders on behalf of the American economy and the nation’s workers for greater access to higher education? Recent developments in Michigan provided a resounding “yes.”
In her first State of the State in 2019, newly-elected Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed Michigan Reconnect—a program based on a Tennessee innovation to offer tuition-free community college to all Michiganders 25 or older lacking a college degree. There were real doubts that the Republican-led Legislature would support this expensive proposal from a new Democratic Governor. The business community led by the State Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Manufacturers, and the state’s largest small business group stepped forward as Reconnect champions in the name of closing the skill gap threatening future business growth. Allied with the Michigan AFL-CIO and teachers’ unions, forceful business support made Reconnect a bipartisan issue with Republicans taking the legislative lead in enacting the proposal. The overwhelming GOP vote for Reconnect in both the House and Senate demonstrated that business wanted tuition-free community college.
A related measure demonstrated that Michigan workers wanted it too. With state funding for Reconnect stalled by budgetary pressures from the pandemic, Governor Whitmer established Futures for Frontliners, a GI Bill for essential workers fashioned after Reconnect using federal emergency funds. Announced last September, 120,000 Michigander applied in less than four months. When Reconnect was finally funded in the fall and open to application on February 2, 40,000 more Michiganders raised their hand in less than two weeks with applications expected to exceed 70,000 by May 30.
These results show there is considerable pent-up demand from employers and workers for tuition-free community college and greater accessibility to four-year universities. It’s time for Congress to help states across the country provide similar opportunities to all their citizens as part of any economic recovery package it considers.
Doug Ross is a Senior Advisor to Governor Gretchen Whitmer. He previously served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training. Doug was also a CFCT Co-Founder and served as our Vice President before joining Governor Whitmer's team.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
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