Thousands of Michigan’s essential workers are now attending state community colleges tuition-free in pursuit of better jobs and higher pay. These new students are harnessing Futures for Frontliners, a Michigan scholarship program providing essential employees tuition-free community college access to earn a degree or skills certificate.
More than 120,000 people applied to the Frontliners initiative ahead of its February 1 deadline, pushing the state toward Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of 60% of Michigan adults achieving higher education by 2030. Participants are busy attending classes even as they continue their crucial work in industries such as healthcare, transportation, law enforcement and public works.
Michigan is among several states coordinating with two-year institutions on workforce programming for unemployed or underemployed residents. Brandy Johnson, policy advisor in education and workforce for Whitmer’s office, says the Frontliners effort takes inspiration from World War II-era legislation that offered college tuition and other benefits to returning veterans.
“First and foremost, this is an expression of deep gratitude for those frontliners who were out working in public while most of us were safe at home during the real height of the pandemic,” Johnson says. “This is a bit like hazard pay to say thank you and help these people invest in their futures.”
Reskilling residents is especially vital for a state that endured historic unemployment rates as a result of Covid-related layoffs, notes Glenda Wapegan-Magarrell, district dean of career programs at Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD).
“One of the most significant gaps we have in the state is the demand for talent,” says Wapegan-Magarrell. “That’s a deficit that’s going to be a challenge for anyone in workforce in Southeast Michigan. This program is equipping residents with the skills needed by employers.”
Government and community college officials partnering on Frontliners say individuals on all stages of their academic journey are now taking advantage of the program. The scholarship is available to people without a college degree who worked at least part-time in essential jobs for 11 of 13 weeks from April 1 to June 30, 2020.
WCCCD, which serves 70,000 learners in 32 Michigan cities and townships, is no stranger to education-based government collaborations, says Brian Singleton, vice chancellor of student services. The college already participates in Michigan Reconnect, an initiative designed for residents age 25 or older seeking tuition help on the road to an associate or technical degree. Additionally, the program offers skills scholarships in manufacturing, construction, information technology, healthcare and business management.
Though alike in mission to Reconnect, Frontliners is accessible to students regardless of age, as long as they haven’t previously earned an associate or bachelor’s degree. Graduates may earn an associate degree on the way to a bachelor’s degree, or enter any number of fields in need of certified talent.
Growth sectors in Michigan include allied health, advanced manufacturing and transportation. Frontliners also plays on WCCCD’s strengths, among them a commercial truck driving program that advanced 300 new drivers since 2017 into positions starting at $18/hour. Participants can eventually become vehicle owners and operators, boosting their income in a high-demand industry.
“Skilled trades and certifications through Frontliners can get individuals jobs immediately, but they can also continue their education at a four-year college,” says Singleton. “At the end of the day, if you walk out with an associate degree or certification, you’re in a much better position to be gainfully employed.”