Free College Tuition Generates Bipartisan Support (in Michigan & Beyond)

Posted by Doug Ross on June 07, 2021 at 7:35 AM

According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 71% of Americans want Democrats and Republicans to work together in Congress. But is it really possible in a nation and state whose politics and people are so polarized?

Michigan just announced that 70,000 residents applied for tuition-free community college in less than four months under Michigan Reconnect, a program offering free community college tuition to any resident 25 or older without a college degree. 

The program, initially proposed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, passed the Legislature with Republican sponsors and lopsided bipartisan majorities despite being a major initiative committing the state to tens of millions of dollars in current and future expenditures.

Michigan Reconnect offers a case study of how the parties can work together in Lansing to address the real problems that face our citizens and businesses.

It started with members of the business community, including the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, communicating to both candidates for governor in 2018 that lack of skilled workers had become the biggest obstacle to business growth in Michigan. In her first State of the State address in 2019, Whitmer, a Democrat, made closing the state’s “skills gap” a major theme and proposed Reconnect as one way to produce more skilled workers. 

Normally, a proposal coming from the governor of one party to the Legislature controlled by the other party carries scant prospects. But the governor did two things differently to avoid a “dead on arrival” verdict for her new initiative: She convinced the Democratic leaders in the Legislature to let her staff look for Republicans to be the chief sponsors of the proposal in both houses; and she asked the business, labor and education groups that supported new opportunities for adults to acquire more skills to come out publicly for Reconnect — which they did at a press conference with the governor and Republican bill sponsors in the spring of 2019.

Then the Republicans in the Legislature took over. With Rep. Ben Frederick in the House and Sen. Ken Horn in the Senate as the primary bill sponsors, the Republicans took the governor’s proposal and revised it to reflect their priorities and political philosophy. 

For example, a private sector option was added that gave Michigan residents who saw better learning opportunities at private training schools $1,500 Reconnect scholarships to make attendance more affordable. In each case, the changes were discussed and negotiated with the governor’s representatives to ensure continuing bipartisan support. 

Over nearly a year, Michigan Reconnect became a GOP proposal.

In her second State of the State in February 2020, the governor no longer spoke of her Reconnect proposal. Instead, she declared that a Reconnect proposal was moving through the Legislature under the leadership of Frederick and Horn with the support of Democratic co-sponsors that she looked forward to signing when it crossed her desk.

When the inertia built into the legislative process caused the measure’s progress to slow, the support coalition of business, unions and education contacted legislators to nudge the bill along. Finally, in March of 2020 it passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities and was signed into law.

Bipartisan success required a willingness by both the governor and legislative leadership to share credit across party lines, quietly negotiate the content of the proposal in good faith and avoid any and all public attacks. It also took a coalition of outside organizations committed to encouraging both Democrats and Republicans to work together to produce something businesses, workers and community colleges saw as the public interest. 

The challenges confronting the country are formidable. Many will demand bipartisan action. The good news is Republicans and Democrats in Lansing, at least, have demonstrated it can be done.


This post originally appeared as an OpEd in The Detroit News, it can be found in its original form here.



Doug Ross is a former senior adviser to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and current partner in the Diploma Equity Project. Doug was also a CFCT Co-Founder and currently serves on our Board of Directors.

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