From preschool to community college tuition: What Whitmer wants to give away free

A woman wearing a dark top and a black skirt stands at a podium in front of a large Michigan state seal.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that she wants to provide free preschool for all 4-year-olds, two years ahead of schedule. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised Wednesday to make the state’s free preschool available to all 4-year-olds regardless of family income, two years ahead of schedule.

In her annual State of the State address, Whitmer also said she would urge lawmakers to expand an existing program that provides free tuition to community colleges. The current program is for people ages 21 and up; Whitmer wants to make it available to students graduating from high school.

Those were two of the biggest ideas Whitmer pushed during a speech that was heavy on ideas but no specifics on how the proposals would be funded. More details are expected when she presents her budget proposal to lawmakers, likely in February.

Until then, here’s what you need to know about what she proposed Wednesday:

Expanding preschool program to reach more students

It was a year ago that Whitmer announced plans to make the Great Start Readiness Program, a free preschool program that targets students mostly from low-income families, available to all 4-year-olds in the state. The plan then was to phase in the expansion until 2026. But in her address Thursday, she announced a new timeline.

“In our next budget, let’s deliver pre-K for every single 4-year-old in Michigan, two years ahead of schedule,” Whitmer said to applause.

She said the universal free program would save families $10,000 each year. Preschool can be expensive, and a fact sheet that accompanied Whitmer’s speech said 40% of Michigan’s 4-year-olds do not attend a preschool program.

But expanding it to serve all 4-year-olds may prove difficult. Early childhood program providers have said they have difficulty finding teachers, and the funding they receive doesn’t allow them to pay teachers and other staff a livable wage.

Still, Whitmer says the expansion is needed to give students a good start in their education journey. She said it is key to improving academic performance, which has lagged for years.

“Four-year-olds who go to pre-K arrive at kindergarten better prepared to learn,” she said. “They are more likely to graduate, go to college, and earn more over their lifetime. And we know higher education or skills training leads to higher incomes.”

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Free community college for all high school graduates

Whitmer, who is pushing to increase the number of Michigan residents who have a postsecondary degree or certificate, proposes providing free tuition for high school graduates to attend one of Michigan’s 28 community colleges.

The proposal has been lauded since it was first reported Tuesday by the Associated Press.

Free community college tuition “has the potential to attract and retain newcomers to the Great Lakes State,” Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, said in a statement. “Though it will take time to fund such a grand vision, it’s important to set strategic goals for the state to work toward over time.

Whitmer said those pursuing an associates degree or skills certificate at a community college “can save an average of $4,000 on tuition.”

“This is a transformational opportunity for graduating seniors and will help us achieve our Sixty by 30 goal of having 60% of adults earn a post-secondary degree or skills training by 2030,” she said.

Michigan already provides free community college for residents who are 21 years old or older and pursuing an associates degree or an eligible skills certificate.

Whitmer to push to extend free school meals

This school year, the state invested millions of dollars to provide access to free school breakfasts and lunches for every student, regardless of income. The Michigan Department of Education said in November that every district in the state is participating in the program, meaning nearly 1.4 million children have access to free meals.

But the funding was available for just one year, and there are efforts to ensure these free meals are available for future school years. Whitmer said Wednesday that she planned to include the meals in her budget proposal.

Whitmer said the initiative allows students to “focus on learning and so their parents save $850 a year on groceries, per student.”

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach Lori at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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