UX | Policy
"Gov. Whitmer Signs Legislation to Create the Michigan Reconnect Program." - Michigan.gov
"Michigan's new, free community college program: What you need to know" - Bridge Michigan
"625,000 essential workers in Michigan eligible for free college: What to know" - Detroit Free Press
This would not have been possible without the combined efforts from Civilla, The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, and a really well traveled rental car that took us from interviews to interviews all over Detroit.
The reason this program works is not because a fund is throwing money around. It's because the program is designed to connect with people on a much deeper level than that.
"I have a nine year old daughter, right? When she goes back to school, I get pages upon pages of what I need to buy for her. And she goes to third grade! I am trying to go back to college. When I go back to school, I get nothing. Do I need a pencil? How many notebooks should I buy?!"
By the numbers in Michigan in 2019, over 60% of adults lacked a post-secondary degree. A lot of new jobs are opening up all around the state, particularly in Detroit, however these jobs are depending on a workforce that is better trained and better educated. There is an estimate that 70% of all jobs in Michigan will require post-secondary education. This is a bit of a pickle.
Historically, a lot of programs seeking to make community college more accessible to adults did not go as planned. Because they saw it as a money issue. People just couldn't afford it.
It is far from just a money issue.
Well part of it is. Turns out that adults have to provide for their families and many already have several jobs. Taking time off means less money coming in to provide. Yet, the adults who are trying to better their lives are being asked to take primarily classes that have almost no immediate relevance to a future career.
Adults also tend to go to night school. In the day time, college campuses are full of life. The cafés are open, there are people, and advisors and staff who are all on location. At night however, none of that is there. Adults do not belong in the world of post-secondary education and at night that fact becomes immediately clear.
We conducted contextual research, expert interviews, and individual ethnographic interviews to really understand all there is about how adults see themselves in relation to community colleges. In particular, the physical and emotional weight that adults carry. We focused on four categories of students: graduates, current students, students that never finished, and students that have decided college isn't for them.
We clustered our notes into a 2x2 that emerged from the data. We could organize our notes by crossing two spectrums: The first spectrum describes why a student goes to school in the first place. If the student is focused on what they will get out of the experience, they are "Transactional." If they are driven by a sense of deeper motivation then they are on the "Purpose" side of the spectrum.
The second spectrum is how a student approaches their education. If they are fully committed and dive in, then they are "Immersed." If they take just one or two classes without letting school disrupt established rhythms, then they are "Nibbling."
From here, we created four archetypes of student experiences that have direct influence on the design principles which the program is based around.
Traditional College: These students are immersed in school, but they feel like they are obligated to complete it, usually by social norms. These students are expecting to discover themselves and the ones who finish tend to have a direct path to a job. More introspective students might consider why they are in college in the first place which could lead them to drop out.
Wandering Path: These are students who cannot fully commit to school and do not have a deep motivation to go. Generally they have been away for some time, but feel pressured to return "for some reason." Usually this is the weekend warrior student who has a high chance of dropping out because anything with respect to family, work, finances, etc. will take priority and school is just not worth it. It's possible for them to stay if they happen to be sparked and inspired into the next quadrant.
Clear On-Ramp: These students cannot yet fully commit to school, but feel a deeper sense of purpose in it. Normally they are testing the water and organizing their life in order to fully immerse later. Once they become confident enough, and are driven by a mission, then they feel comfortable taking a full load of classes.
Mission to Success: Adults in this category are the most likely to finish school. They tend to be proactive about seeking support in college and tend to have systems or people in place outside of school that help them remain focused. Almost nobody fits into this category outright. That said, a student from the other quadrants can shift into this quadrant if they are given the time and support in their outside lives and then again in their school life.
This then formed the three design principles that guide every development in the program:
1) The program must connect a person's inherent strengths to a realistic career where those traits are valued. This helps create a deeper sense of meaning, if the right curriculum is in place.
2) The program must build a sense of community among it's students. Adults should not feel isolated in their education. This helps create the support systems in place outside of school that help a student immerse in education. There are specific ways in which a community can urge and support someone (push, pull, and peer).
3) The adults are always focused on the road ahead. It's never too late, any past history is not a failure on their end, and they are not lagging behind. Students are always in the right place at the right time. The program is there for when they are ready not the other way around.
These principles then became the guides from which the program was developed. Everything from specific actions, to when exactly these actions are happening, and why. The program starts when a student first notices that they can apply, through the lingering Summer months when decisions are made and remade, to the first semester, to them graduating. At each step there are clear support structures and funding in place to make sure that an adult doesn't just get an education, but also discovers a career for after.
I think successful experiences are made from a deep understanding of the people who need them. In this case study it was critical to go beyond the usual histories that people have faced and to dig deeper into the emotional subtext that was coming up for them. It's this focus that allows the program to navigate real anxieties that people have yet may not be able to articulate. This understanding also informs how people are motivated to continue down a path that is years long and remain confident and connected.
In April 2020, Gov. Whitmer signed House Bill 5580 into law to secure the Michigan Reconnect program. In it's first month, the Michigan Reconnect program received 85,000 applicants.