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For nearly a year, frontline workers have kept our nation’s economy and healthcare system afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. To thank these essential workers for their service and build a more resilient workforce, 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 frontline 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 frontline workers and state economies nationwide.
In April 2020, Governor 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 frontline 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 frontline 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.
Applicants also came from rural and urban communities in every county in the state, demonstrating the appeal of free community college across widely varying demographics. This suggests elected officials with very different constituencies can benefit from providing the people they represent a tuition-free path to college. Of course, the ultimate test will be what percentage of students who begin college under Futures for Frontliners go on to complete their degrees or credentials, but early enthusiasm for the program is promising.
In the Consolidated Appropriations Act of December 2020, the US Congress provided an additional $4 billion to states through the GEER Fund — resources that could be used by states for programs modeled on Futures for Frontliners. States can also replicate Michigan’s success through the $360 billion in state and local aid funds enacted through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
Should state leaders decide to put these resources to work by developing a Futures for Frontliners model in their state, these are some actions they should take:
First, invite a broad array of stakeholders to the table. The Futures for Frontliners program launched with support from the business community, including the Michigan and Detroit Chambers of Commerce, major corporations such as Kroger and Walmart, the state workforce agency, organized labor, and nonprofits committed to college access. Business buy-in was critical in enlisting the support of Republican legislators for Michigan Reconnect, which required state appropriations. Employer engagement also helped with efforts to reach large numbers of potential applicants, which was also the case in Tennessee, the first state to launch the Reconnect model.
Secondly, program rules and requirements should be simple and flexible. Tuition-free college programs are a “win” for both individuals and communities when they are broadly understood and widely used, and this is best accomplished through simple and flexible rules.
In Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect, part-time college attendance is permitted — a critical feature for adults who may want to attend college while continuing to work. A broad range of programs offered by community colleges, including vocational training and Pell-eligible skills certificates, are covered. The application process was streamlined, with immediate verification of eligibility in most cases. These features, backed up by a public messaging campaign, facilitated high rates of uptake.
And finally, support must be available to help students navigate to and through higher education. More than a decade of research into free-college programs shows that money alone is not enough to ensure successful degree or credential completion, especially for first-generation and low-income college goers. Students need help connecting with the post-secondary pathway that is right for them and may also need support once enrolled to ensure timely progression and degree completion.
Limited funding for support efforts included in Futures for Frontliners was used to leverage efforts by nonprofit and higher ed institutions to provide counseling and support to students through a college advising hotline and success efforts based at community colleges.
The pandemic-induced economic crisis differs from past recessions in many ways. College enrollment, which usually spikes during an economic downturn, has declined nationally among both recent high-school graduates and adults, with low-income populations especially hard hit.
The economic toll of the pandemic coupled with the challenges of remote learning threaten to set back a generation of students and workers seeking to upgrade their skills for the 21st century economy. Michigan is a model for how states can reverse these trends, reward essential workers, and strengthen overall economic competitiveness — even in a polarized political environment.
By replicating Michigan’s success with Futures for Frontliners, the rest of the nation can not only thank essential workers for their service but also put their local and state economies on a stronger path to recovery.