The halls of a community college are filled with a sense of urgency. Whether it’s rushing to make it to class before getting marked late or hurrying out the door just in time for work, the atmosphere is filled with hard work and ambition. When I graduated high school, I was overwhelmed by the societal pressure placed on eighteen-year-olds to choose a career and spend tens of thousands of dollars working towards that degree. I knew that I wasn’t quite ready to embark on a four-year journey at a university. Instead, I chose to spend a year at my local community college, knocking out my general education requirements before transferring to a four-year university. This experience gave me the tools that I needed to grow as a student and helped me finally decide what I wanted to do with my life.

The community college experience isn’t a typical college experience. The students are usually older; there’s more riding on them this time around. The pressures of work, finances and parenthood on top of schoolwork are overwhelming issues that most university students don’t have to juggle. For a community college student, sacrificing comfort in hopes of a better future makes the tireless day-to-day routine of balancing all of these responsibilities worthwhile.

To encourage more Michiganders to pursue higher education, the Michigan legislature launched a $30 million bipartisan scholarship program called “Reconnect.” Reconnect offers Michigan residents twenty-five and older free tuition to their local community college, provided they have not already completed a post-secondary degree. The program will cover the in-district portion of tuition for students attending community college outside their district, or $1,500 towards a skills certificate from a private training provider. The program’s goal is for sixty percent of Michigan’s workforce to have a post-secondary degree by 2030, to help fill the 545,000 jobs in the trades that will be available by 2026. The median annual salary wage of a full-time employee with a high school degree is $40,510, per year, compared to and the median annual salary of a full-time employee with an associate degree is, earning $50,079. Popular trades in Michigan include construction, automotive, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare.

Prospective students must complete both the State application and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Reconnect students must meet all of the eligibility requirements for federal aid with the exception that they can be in default on a federal student loan and still qualify for Reconnect. Of the 1,535 Reconnect students at Washtenaw Community College, 780 have registered for summer or fall classes. The most popular associate degrees among Reconnect students are in healthcare and business.

Daniel Walton is in the Reconnect program at WCC. The thirty-year-old father of three was shocked when he first heard about the program. “I saw a post about it on Facebook, and I didn’t believe it. It sounded too good to be true. I figured there was no harm in applying, so I did, and I received an acceptance letter like right away.”

Walton had attended college twice before. He attended Eastern Michigan University but financial difficulties forced him to drop out. Walton enrolled at WCC in 2012 but personal issues prevented him from completing his degree. Ten years on, he thought he’d never go back to school, but with a family to support and physical labor jobs taking a toll on his body, he believes that a career change is best for him and his family. Walton is pursuing an associate degree in radiology and hopes to transfer to the University of Michigan to pursue a bachelor’s degree. He is grateful for the flexibility of the online classes, allowing him to continue working full time while focusing on subjects he finds more challenging.

For anyone considering going back to school, Walton offers this advice: “Do it while you can. Don’t prolong it. The longer you wait, the harder it’s going to get. If you’re nervous, it’s gonna be okay. The butterflies will go away sooner or later.”