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Opinion | Tuition-free college plan is smart investment in Michigan’s future

Michelle Miller-Adams

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a new program this week to provide workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis with a tuition-free path to a college degree or credential. Echoing the sentiment of the GI Bill of Rights that in 1944 offered educational opportunity to soldiers returning from World War II, the “Futures for Frontliners” program was described by the governor as “our way of saying ‘thank you’ to those who have risked their lives on the frontlines of this crisis.”

Details are forthcoming, but it appears that workers without college degrees in critical fields such as health and hospitals, sanitation, transportation, security, and the food industry would be eligible for a “last-dollar” grant to complete a certificate, associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Funding would come from flexible education grants under the CARES Act as well as federal workforce training dollars.

This is not just a savvy political move — after all, it will be hard to oppose aid to essential workers who have been praised for their bravery and effort by leaders across the political spectrum. It is also a smart investment in Michigan’s future. The state has set a goal of 60 percent of its workers having degrees or credentials by 2030; today, that figure stands at 45 percent. So, any initiative that increases Michigan’s stock of educated workers will help position it for economic growth. Delays are costly; evidence suggests that recessions have long-lasting effects , penalizing distressed states and regions far into the future. Michigan had begun to grapple with its skills shortage before the crisis, passing the Michigan Reconnect act to provide tuition-free community college for adults without degrees. Funding for the program was approved in early March, but days later zeroed out as all available resources were rolled into the state’s coronavirus emergency response fund. The proposed Futures for Frontliners program will move the state part of the way toward the Michigan Reconnect vision and the broader attainment goal.

Sure, hard questions remain. Experience has shown that a simple promise of a tuition-free path to a post-secondary degree has the power to move people into degree and credential programs at high rates. Even a “last-dollar” scholarship awarded after other grant aid, as this one is likely to be, can lead to large upticks in enrollment if it is easy to understand and access. The Futures for Frontliners program will need to be structured so eligibility and usage are clear and the application process for the program is simple and streamlined.

Distributional questions will also arise. The governor and her advisers would be wise to build on what is already known about the free-college movement to create the infrastructure and messaging necessary to meet their goals.

And, of course, there is a legislative battle to come, in a setting where mistrust between the governor and the Republican-led legislature is high amid debates over emergency powers and stay-at-home orders.

Even with these challenges, there is reason to hope this cleverly framed program can be passed into law and bring benefits to workers trapped in low-wage jobs as well as to Michigan as a whole. The positive attention the proposal has received in national media also suggests that other states may consider using their federal money for the same purpose.

As with much about this crisis, states are serving as hotbeds of innovation, and governors have stepped up as creative problem-solvers. The free-college idea is eminently flexible, as the many local and state variations on it suggest. Whitmer has shown how this idea can be adapted to our current moment and offers a formula for building a better trained workforce that can help states as they emerge from crisis.

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