By KRISTIA POSTEMA
Capital News Service
LANSING — In the spring of 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the Futures for Frontliners program to thank essential workers, but the program may also prove to be an economic asset to communities involved.
The program gives qualified essential workers the opportunity to attend community college tuition-free and fee-free, according to Michael Hansen, the president of the Michigan Community College Association.
Hansen said applicants “must have worked in one of the predetermined industries that the governor and her team considered frontline workers.” There is no minimum or maximum age limit to participate.
Students must be frontline workers who worked in the field between April 1 and June 30, 2020, for 11 of the 13 weeks, said Debra Alexander, the dean of students and enrollment services at Montcalm Community College.
Applicants must be Michigan residents who were required to work outside their home at least some the time during the pandemic, and they cannot already have an associate or bachelor’s degree, Alexander said.
Many workers in health care were considered frontline workers, as well as sanitation and grocery workers, according to Hansen.
Applicants must live in a community college district to receive full coverage of costs. According to Hansen, about 80% of applicants live in such districts.
For the other 20%, the program covers the in-district rate while students are responsible for paying the difference between the in-district and out-of-district rates.
The deadline to apply was last Dec. 31, so many Futures for Frontliners enrollees began their classes at the start of the spring 2021 semester, according to Hansen.
The Futures for Frontliners website said more than 100,000 essential workers applied for the program.
“Many of the early applicants and enrollees were already enrolled in college,” Hansen said. However, essential workers who weren’t previously enrolled have also been admitted to the program.
According to Hansen, although the program funds only two-year degrees, many higher-paying jobs in fields where many essential workers were already employed require associate’s degrees.
Paul Isely, the associate dean of undergraduate programs at Grand Valley State Univerisiy’s Seidman College of Business, said acquisition of an associate’s degree can have a positive economic impact.
“As people have more education, the more economic output an individual has,” Isely said.
“The difference between a high school graduate and someone with an associate’s degree in the United States is just short of $100 a week, and the difference between a [bachelor’s degree] and a high school education is more than $450 a week, so we know that as education goes up so does income,” he said.
According to Isely, the economic benefits of the program will extend to the community.
“Increased wages alone will have a lot of impact very quickly,” Isely said.
Isely said about 82,000 students have already been approved statewide, and there will likely be around 100,000 once all the applications have been reviewed.
“So if roughly 100,000 people were able to take advantage of this, if they completed an associate’s degree they’d be making combined about $650 million a year,” Isely said.
Isely said that $650 million will circulate back into the community because “individuals who are earning higher incomes no longer need as much public support for food, clothing and shelter.”
The benefits of the program attracted many frontline workers and increased enrollment at community colleges such as Montcalm Community College and Grand Rapids Community College.
“As of Jan. 5, Montcalm Community College had 96 new students enrolled for spring semester, 83 re-enrollees and 169 existing students that received futures funding,” Alexander said. Many of the participants are in nursing programs.
At Grand Rapids Community College, new and existing students are taking advantage of the funding.
According to Dave Murray, its communications director, the program has accepted nearly 3,000 applicants to classes at Grand Rapids Community College.
“At this point, at least 1,600 students have enrolled in winter semester classes, and the others can enroll in the summer or the fall semesters coming up,” Murray said.
Isely also predicted that the program will provide an incentive for businesses to invest in Michigan communities.
“The increase in economic output means now you have businesses that want to locate in Michigan that wouldn’t have wanted to locate here before,” Isely said. “We will have the talent that they need.”
“The cost of community college is roughly $5,000 a year, so to get an associate’s degree would be roughly $10,000,” Isely said. “Spending that money in Michigan results in us getting that money back in about one and a half years and then it keeps going after that.”
Although the application deadline for the Futures for Frontliners program has passed, applications for the Michigan Reconnect program, which provides similar funding for frontline workers over the age of 25, are now open.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 19, 2021, to correct an error about the proportion of tuition the program pays for students who do not live in a community college district.