When Michigan launched a free college program for frontline workers last year during the pandemic, state officials expected to receive around 15,000 applicants. Instead, the program, called Futures for Frontliners, drew 120,000. “It was kind of a proof point, if you will, that demand is high in our state for this opportunity,” said Kerry Ebersole, director of Michigan’s Sixty by 30 initiative, which aims for 60% of the state’s working adults to have a postsecondary credential by 2030.
Just a few months later, the state created another free college program. Called Michigan Reconnect, it targets residents who are 25 or older with a high school diploma but no further degrees. Within six weeks, the program received more than 60,000 applications. Both initiatives are part of Michigan’s Sixty by 30 goal, which relies on increasing college-going rates from recent high school graduates as well as enticing adults to gain postsecondary credentials. Around 45 states have similar attainment goals, yet free college programs open to adult students, typically considered to be those ages 25 and older, are uncommon in higher education.
Fourteen out of 23 statewide free college programs exclude adult and returning students, while many of those that don’t leave them out have stringent participation requirements that “effectively do the same,” according to a report last year from The Education Trust. Just two programs in its sample were designed for older students. The landscape may be shifting, however. The pandemic reinvigorated calls to upskill large swaths of the population. Its harm to the economy also highlighted the need for states and colleges to remove potential cost barriers to postsecondary education.
“Finances will no longer be the barrier to getting a college degree if you’re over 25,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. “As we start to see increasing requirements of higher skills … you’ll also see therefore the demand pick up for adult students to come back.”