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Whitmer thanks Michigan COVID essential workers with free community college

Around 625,000 Michigan essential workers will be eligible for free community college under a new program first announced by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in April and formalized on Thursday. 

Under the program Whitmer is calling Futures for Frontliners, people who worked frontline jobs during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak between April and June will be eligible for a free high school completion program, community college degree or both. 

“Over the past six months Michiganders across the state have put their lives on the line every single day to protect others from this deadly virus,” Whitmer said during a news conference Thursday announcing the program. 

“These men and women have emerged as the real heroes in the midst of this pandemic. And yet we know it’s a lot more important that we act and treat them as the heroes they are and not just call them heroes.”

Frontline workers include medical employees but also people who worked in grocery stores, nursing homes, sanitation services, law enforcement, and other industries. A full list of eligible industries can be found here.

To qualify for the program, people must: 

  • Live in Michigan
  • Have worked in an essential industry at least part-time for 11 of the 13 weeks between April 1 – June 30
  • Have been required by their job to work outside the home at least some of the time between April 1 – June 30
  • Not already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree
  • Not have defaulted on a federal student loan 

Applications close at midnight on Dec. 31. 

There is no age limit or income cap to be eligible for the program.

The program is funded by $24 million from the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund (GEER), a portion of money appropriated through the federal CARES Act that Whitmer is allowed to use at her discretion. Michigan qualified for $89 million in GEER funding, and Whitmer has already spent $65 million to help K-12 schools transition to teaching amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic this fall. 

Michigan’s major business groups, including Business Leaders for Michigan, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan and others indicated in a news release they support the program. 

Many essential workers do not have college degrees and likely are working in low-paying jobs. A recent federal Bureau of Labor Statistics report on essential work showed that jobs that did not call for education beyond high school paid much less than the U.S. full-time average of $39,810. Cashiers, for example, earned just 40 percent of that; janitor wages were 69 percent, while stock and general laborers, such as in warehouse jobs, were paid about 74 percent of that full-time average.

Giving those workers free access to higher education should give them more opportunities for higher-wage work, said economist Lou Glazer of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit that promotes policies that increase the rate of Michigan students pursuing college degrees. 

“It’s a recognition that those folks were doing something that was important to do, but dangerous,” Glazer said of essential workers’ role during the pandemic. “They were doing it in low-wage jobs and they earned an opportunity to move up.”

Creating the opportunity is a good first step, Glazer said. However, free tuition removes only one barrier to students completing degrees at community colleges, he said. Life expenses also play a role for many of these students, Glazer said, resulting in low completion rates for students who start programs at community colleges. 

“There’s also only a limited number of occupations for which a community college degree leads to high earnings payoff,” Glazer said.

The best outcome, Glazier said, is for essential workers to take advantage of the state’s program, while community colleges help them pursue coursework that allows them to finish and find a path to good-paying careers.

“If all three happen, this will be terrific,” Glazer said.

Many of the low-wage workers eligible for the program likely could already go to community college for free, by using federal Pell grants, which cover up to $6,195 a year for students in families with adjusted gross incomes of $26,000 or less. Students earning up to $60,000 qualify for smaller Pell grants.

The Futures for Frontliners grants will pay only for community college tuition not covered by Pell grants.

Even if some essential workers could have already gone to community college for free, many didn’t know that, said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a group that works to increase college enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.

“Every time you turn on the TV, some talking head is saying college is too expensive,” Fewins-Bliss said. “Low-income folks hear that loud and clear and believe they can’t afford it.”

The Futures for Frontliners program “changes the conversation around the dinner table. The publicity of telling folks there is a pathway for them, changes the mindset for them.”

Within hours of Thursday’s announcement, Lansing Community College had a message about the program on its campus phone line and on the top of its website.

“We have no idea of the response we’ll get, but we are thrilled to be in a position to help the frontline workers who helped us,” said Gary King, associate dean for academic and career pathways at LCC.

Low-income Michigan residents who don’t have a family history of college are difficult to get onto campus, but are key to improving the state’s economy. The share of state residents ages 25-64 with a two-year associate’s degree or higher rose from 35.6 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2017. That puts Michigan 30th in the United States.

Nationally, 42.4 percent of adults in this age group had an associate’s degree or higher in 2017. Massachusetts led the nation at 53.8 percent.

The median annual income of Michigan residents with an associate’s degree is $16,000 higher than the median income for those with no education beyond a high school degree, five years after graduation.

Getting college credentials into the hands of more adults increases not only individual family incomes, but the state’s tax base that pays for things like roads and schools.

Imagine being a grocery store clerk who always wanted to go to college but didn’t think there was a pathway, to find out that not only is there a path for you, but there’s a path because you're a hero,” MCAN’s Fewins-Bliss said. “It’s a win-win for the state and the public.”

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