West Michigan community colleges saw thousands of applications through the Futures for Frontliners program unveiled by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year to cover tuition for workers deemed essential during COVID-19 shutdown orders.
More than 60,000 people applied in the first two weeks after the program opened in September, while 120,000 people reportedly applied by the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline.
Muskegon Community College had 3,334 applications come in through the program before the Dec. 31 deadline. Grand Rapids Community College had 3,050, and Kalamazoo Valley Community College had 1,609 applicants.
Many students returning to Muskegon Community College for the winter 2021 semester through the program haven’t taken a class in years, said John Selmon, the school’s provost and executive vice president.
The program likely brought many back who wouldn’t have otherwise returned without the tuition assistance, he said.
“We know community colleges are the economic engines that will fuel economies going forward and will play an important role in economic recovery from COVID-19,” Selmon said.
Grand Rapids Community College is also seeing these types of returning students. Of the 3,050 who the state accepted for the program through GRCC, 1,109 students had attended the community college as recently as fall 2020, said GRCC Communications Director David Murray. The majority of GRCC’s applicants were returning students, but almost one-third of the applicants are enrolling in the school for the first time, Murray said.
Students accepted into the program could choose to enroll in the winter, summer or fall semesters of 2021. With limited face-to-face classes currently offered because of COVID-19, Selmon expects many students are waiting for the summer semester for potentially more in-person learning.
“We’re working with these individuals, making sure they complete their paperwork and are getting them ready to start,” Selmon said. “It’s a good program and a great idea.”
About 625,000 employees in Michigan fall into the “essential worker” category and qualify for Futures for Frontliners. The $24 million program is funded from an emergency education relief fund within the federal CARES Act from last year.
To qualify for free tuition at a community college, Michigan residents had to meet certain requirements, including working in an essential industry at least part-time for 11 of the 13 weekends between April 1 and June 30, 2020. Applicants also could not be in default of a federal student loan, and could not have previously earned an associate or bachelor’s degree.
“Futures for Frontliners is an extraordinary opportunity for students of all ages to start or resume an education that will change their lives,” Murray said. “This program removes cost as a barrier to education, and can connect residents with the skills they need to advance in their careers or seek new job opportunities.”
Eligible frontline industries included food and agriculture, health care, critical manufacturing, communications and information technology, law enforcement, public safety, first responders, public works, and transportation.
The program has increased awareness about the benefits of a certificate or degree completion in helping workers earn a higher wage, said Linda Depta, director of communication and marketing for Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
A 2020 analysis by the American Association of Community Colleges reports the median earnings of full-time employees with a high school degree is $40,510 annually, while those with an associate degree make $50,079 per year.
“Our students are telling us that having this tuition assistance really helps to make their dreams of a college education come true, and we are looking at a similar response to the Michigan Reconnect program,” Depta said.
Eligible Michigan residents 25 and older can qualify for Michigan Reconnect, a similar state program that launched this year and offers free community college or job certification programs. Applications for the $30 million program proposed in Whitmer’s budget last year opened on Feb. 2.
Michigan Reconnect is for people pursuing an associate degree at a community college or skills certificate, and it also includes skills scholarships to help cover the cost at more than 70 private training schools. These programs offer certificates for industries including manufacturing, construction, information technology, health care or business management.
Selmon and Depta are each seeing growing interest in the Reconnect program.
“We support nearly any effort that provides real incentive for students to complete a college credential,” Depta said. “The Future for Frontliners program underscored how important the training that is available at Kalamazoo Valley Community College is for our students, their families and the communities we serve. We’re also delighted to welcome students of all ages. The diversity contributes to rich learning environments that a community college provides.”