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A Labor Perspective: Michigan ‘Is Offering Free College For Essential Workers, The Rest Of The Country Should Follow Suit’

Published Wednesday, March 24, 2021
by Opinion Contributors Max Lubin &Michelle Miller-Adams Via
A Labor Perspective: Michigan ‘Is Offering Free College For Essential Workers, The Rest Of The Country Should Follow Suit’ Editor’s Note: Max Lubin is Co-Founder and CEO of RISE.  Michelle Miller-Adams is Senior Researcher at the WE Upjohn Institute and Professor at Grand Valley State University.


For nearly a year, Front Line Workers have kept our Nation's economy and health care system afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To thank these Essential Workers for their service and build a more resilient workforce, The State of Michigan has pioneered a tuition-free community college program called Futures for Frontliners.

Launched this past fall, Futures for Frontliners met with a resounding response: at a time when community college attendance has declined 10% nationwide, over 120,000 Front Line Workers - one-fifth of those eligible - applied to participate.

There is much that other states can learn from Michigan's experience and tuition-free community college can help Front Line Workers and state economies nationwide.

In April 2020, Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced she would use $24 million from the CARES Act's Governor's Education Emergency Relief (GEER) Fund to send people who had worked in front-line roles during the pandemic to community college - tuition free.

She cast the initiative as a GI Bill for Essential Workers, one that would create "a tuition-free pathway to gaining the skills needed to obtain high-demand, high-wage careers."

The program was part of a broader package of legislative proposals to help Michigan meet the 60% higher education attainment goal set when Whitmer first took office.

Among these proposals is Michigan Reconnect, a tuition-free community college initiative for residents 25 and older who do not have college degrees.

Funding for Michigan Reconnect had been zeroed out at the onset of the pandemic, but was restored with strong bipartisan support by the Legislature in the Fall - another striking political achievement, coming at a time of intense political polarization around the 2020 Presidential Election. 

An estimated 625,000 Michigan Workers in a broad range of occupational sectors - from those working in chemical supply, to those providing food, to Health Care and Law Enforcement Workers - were eligible to participate in Futures for Frontliners - 85,000 have thus far been approved to enroll in college, beginning in January 2021.

We know People of Color - many of them working in these front-line occupations - have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 and are often the most disadvantaged in accessing quality education and career-building opportunities.

It is thus good news that applicants for Futures for Frontliners are significantly more diverse, economically and racially speaking, than the Michigan population overall.

For example, 25% of those accepted into the program are Black, compared with 13% of the workforce.

Futures for Frontliners is also helping drive financial aid completion at places like Grand Rapids Community College, where FAFSA applications are up 44% compared to last year.

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