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Detroit Reconnect: Lending an Academic Helping Hand

By Paul Vachon

Now, more than ever, lifelong learning is essential to the economic lifeblood of Detroit and the nation. But for many adults contemplating a return to the classroom, the need to continue working or tend to other responsibilities can make that goal challenging.

In May of 2019 the Detroit Regional Chamber introduced Detroit Reconnect to complement Detroit Drives Degrees (begun in 2015). While the original program is aimed at assisting students of traditional ages, the new initiative targets the wider swath of “nontraditional” learners. The U.S Department of Education describes these students as those over the age of 25 “who often have work and family responsibilities.” It can also refer to a veteran, or a married, or a recently divorced person. Both programs are aimed at boosting postsecondary degree attainment.

Detroit Reconnect aims to promote postsecondary educational opportunities and enhance student outcomes. It promotes the Chamber’s goal for 60% of Southeast Michigan residents to earn a post-secondary education credential by 2030. Yet, currently, some 700,000 adults in Southeast Michigan have college experience but failed to complete a degree. Meanwhile, the existing K-12 student population continues to decline.

“Detroit Reconnect is a virtual navigation service that’s free for adults that want to return to school. We help individuals with career exploration, selecting the right program, and offer support to those seeking financial aid,” said Michelle Cyrus, director of adult college completion for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees.

Realizing that some students may be disadvantaged, the program also offers referrals to community agencies offering food and housing assistance.

Recruiting and acclimating students into the program is a multi-step process that connects them with advisors as they make decisions on the next moves in their academic journey, according to Cyrus.

Detroit Reconnect can also help if an aspiring student owes a school a past due balance. If a student attended Henry Ford College, has been out of school for a minimum of two years, and carried a minimum 2.0 GPA, placement in the Debt Forgiveness Program will forgive 50% of the balance, and arrange a payment plan for the balance. Once the first installment is made, the student can reenroll. If the student chooses to attend another institution, Henry Ford will release her transcripts. Wayne County Community College participates in the program, but only if a student remains at WCCC.

At the four-year level, Oakland University and Wayne State University have similar initiatives. Under Wayne State’s Warrior Way Back Program a student may reenroll, and will receive forgiveness of one third of her outstanding debt for each successfully completed semester. This can be used in tandem with financial aid a student may obtain from other sources, explained Dawn Medley, Associate Vice President at Wayne State.

Futures for Frontliners

Confronting the plight faced by essential workers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the State of Michigan has responded with its Futures for Frontliners program. FFF offers community college scholarships to students with no college experience who were employed in an essential industry between April 1 and June 30 of 2020. This includes fields such as energy, public works, law enforcement, and more.

The scholarships, which cover tuition for those enrolled full or part time, allow these students to earn an associate degree or a skills certificate. Applicants must be Michigan residents, and not in default on a federal student loan.

Paul Vachon is a freelance writer in Metro Detroit.