Shelby Essenmacher always thought obtaining a college education and a fulfilling career with a good paycheck were out of her reach. She had faced significant challenges throughout her life, including time in the foster care system and living on her own while trying to graduate from high school.
That was before the grad of Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township learned about the Michigan Reconnect scholarship program.
Michigan Reconnect is the largest effort in state history to ensure Michiganders who are 25 or older and do not have a college degree have an opportunity to earn an associate degree or skills certificate with free or deeply-discounted tuition.
Essenmacher, 30, of Detroit, is taking advantage of the program to pursue an Associates of Applied Science in Nursing degree at Wayne County Community College District.
“This is a life changer,” Essenmacher said. “I can now seriously go after my dream of becoming a nurse without worrying about the cost of tuition, which has always been a major obstacle preventing me from going back to school. Reconnect has cleared a pathway for me to achieve my education and career goals.”
Essenmacher is among the 91,000 Michiganders accepted into Michigan Reconnect since its launch in February 2021 and one of 12,000 scholarship participants currently working toward a degree or skills certificate through the program.
Raised by a single mother and grandmother, Essenmacher spent her childhood moving from place to place and school to school throughout Southeast Michigan until circumstances forced her into the foster care system. By the time she was nearing graduation from Eisenhower, she was living on her own and working full time.
After graduating from high school in 2009, she took classes at Macomb Community College and Wayne State University but couldn’t afford to continue once her single-year scholarship ended.
Essenmacher worked in several service industry jobs until 2020. She lost her bartending job early that spring when her employer closed its doors due to the pandemic.
She enrolled in the Michigan College of Beauty for her esthetician license, but after a while decided that wasn’t what she really wanted to do.
“The economics of the pandemic are especially tough for people like me with only a high school diploma, limited experience and no real job prospects,” Essenmacher said. “And then I heard about Michigan Reconnect.”
The program pays the cost of in-district tuition for eligible adults who want to pursue an associate degree or skills certificate at any of Michigan’s public community colleges, including its three tribal colleges. Eligible residents can attend community college tuition-free at a community college where they are considered in-district. For those who are not considered in-district by a community college, Reconnect will still cover the in-district portion of tuition.
Studies show an education beyond high school opens the door to economic opportunity, financial security and social mobility, with annual earnings of $7,500 more for those with a two-year degree compared to only a high school diploma.
Michigan Reconnect is one of the tools being used to pursue Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Sixty by 30” goal, which aims to increase the percentage of adults with a postsecondary degree or credential by 2030.
“Programs like Michigan Reconnect are putting more Michiganders within reach of a college degree or skills certificate, and on a path to bigger paychecks,” said Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Susan Corbin. “We are opening new doors for our hard working men and women and new opportunities for Michigan businesses to tap a growing talent pipeline to fill their critical workforce needs.”
According to a recent report of long-term employment projections from the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, nearly 530,000 jobs in high-demand, high-wage professional trades fields alone will be available in the state through 2028. It is estimated Nearly 50% of those jobs will require postsecondary education.
Data shows metro Detroit is home to nearly 1.7 million jobs and is projected to have almost 209,000 job openings every year through 2028. Of those projected openings, at least 52,300 will typically require a postsecondary certification, an associate degree, apprenticeship or similar training.
In metro Detroit, nursing and other health care occupations expected to grow through 2028 include registered nurse, which is projected to grow by 3.7% and requires at least an associate degree to earn $31 to $42 per hour; nurse practitioner, which is projected to grow by 16% and requires at least a bachelor’s degree to earn $46 to $61 per hour; occupational therapy assistant, which is projected to grow by 10.7% and requires an associate degree to earn $21 to $30 per hour; and respiratory therapist assistant, which is projected to grow by 12.3% and requires an associate degree to earn $25 to $33 per hour.
“We strive to empower people, businesses and communities through higher education and career advancement,” said WCCCD Chancellor Dr. Curtis L. Ivery. “We do that by providing accessible, culturally diverse and globally competitive programs and services.”
Essenmacher started at WCCCD in January with the goal of her nursing degree in 2025.
She said while the thought of going back to school was scary, she was blessed to have both the support of her husband, Andrew Damaske, and Sean Henry, a navigator for Michigan Reconnect applicants at WCCCD. Navigators help guide the applicants as they attempt to participate in the Michigan Reconnect scholarship program and enroll in college.
“Sean was so helpful and stood by me every step of the way — answering my questions about the program, assisting me with paperwork, and helping me find the right school for what I wanted to study,” Essenmacher said. “I don’t know if I could have done this without him.”
Navigator support includes admissions and financial aid requirements, setting career goals, identifying relevant educational opportunities and helping create a plan to graduate. Navigators also can help access additional programs and assistance offered by their community college and local community and partner resources to remove barriers to education.
Some of the services WCCCD provides students include a food pantry for groceries, vouchers for city transportation, a closet of donated clothing, emergency housing placement and mental health advisers for students who have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic.
Henry said he loves being a navigator and the personal satisfaction that comes with starting or restarting people on their educational journey.
“It’s an honor to work every day with men and women striving for a more secure future,” Henry said. “Going back to school or starting for the first time isn’t easy to do, especially if you have a family, a full-time job or any number of life responsibilities. It’s important for people to know they’re not in this alone.”
More information is available at Michigan.gov/Reconnect.