A new program aims to give frontline workers in the COVID-19 pandemic a pathway into higher education.
Despite its initial fanfare, the “Futures for Frontliners” program, announced last month by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, lacks a roadmap or timeframe for implementation. Whitmer touted the proposal, which offers tuition-free post-secondary education to essential workers, as the “first program of its kind in the nation.”
At the time, Whitmer said her administration was inspired by the federal government’s support of soldiers returning from World War II and described the program as a “G.I. Bill for workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Higher education officials, however, say they know very little about the program, other than what Whitmer announced a month ago.
“We don’t have any more information on the program than you probably do,” said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
Hansen, who works with the state’s 28 community colleges, anticipates the Futures for Frontliners program will be modeled after the recently passed Michigan Reconnect Grant Program, which provides tuition-free college for adults over age 25.
“The Futures for Frontliners would be for a more focused group and for anyone over 18, I believe, but the basic framework could be modeled on MiReconnect,” Hansen said.
At press time, neither Michigan Reconnect nor Futures for Frontliners has state or federal funding available to support them. That means, in reality, both programs are still just ideas, according to Hansen.
“Given the current economic climate, finding new revenue for either program will be challenging,” he said. “That said, we are supportive of any program that removes financial barriers to individuals who want to start or finish a degree at a community college.”
Futures for Frontlines also still requires legislative approval to be funded and implemented, which may take a while, according to Daniel Hurley, president of the Michigan Association of State Universities.
Hurley, who has been in regular contact with the governor’s office regarding other university challenges related to COVID-19, does not believe the Futures for Frontliners program could possibly be passed or funded before January 2021.
In addition, if the program is a modified form of the Michigan Reconnect program, it will exclude potential participants who want to attend four-year universities.
“We did not succeed at getting four-year universities into Michigan Reconnect, so, unfortunately, I don’t think state universities will be included (in Futures for Frontliners),” Hurley said.
The Michigan Reconnect Grant Program was modeled on a “highly successful bipartisan program in Tennessee,” according to the governor’s office. The goal of the program is to provide a tuition-free way for non-traditional students to get “in-demand” industry certificates or associate degrees. The program aligns with Whitmer’s goal, announced in her 2019 State of the State address, of raising the number of people in Michigan who hold post-secondary degrees to 60 percent of the adult population by 2030.
Whitmer’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
In theory, Futures for Frontliners will open the opportunities available from the Michigan Reconnect program to people without college degrees who are staffing hospitals and nursing homes, stocking the shelves at grocery stores, providing child care to critical infrastructure workers, manufacturing personal protective equipment, protecting public safety, collecting trash or delivering supplies during the crisis — regardless of their age.
Dave Murray, communications director at Grand Rapids Community College, said school administrators have not yet received additional information about the programs but are “looking forward to hearing more.”
For now, higher education institutions and the people who have worked through the sudden coronavirus crisis must wait while the Future for Frontliners program possibly makes its way through the state Legislature.
People in West Michigan will be in need of new skills “as we emerge from the pandemic,” Murray said, adding that graduates of existing GRCC programs are already deployed in the field as so-called frontline workers.
“Our graduates are working in law enforcement and health care as first responders. They’re working in other essential roles, such as information technology and manufacturing. We also have a partnership with Meijer to train people for retail management,” Murray said. “As businesses reopen, and as people need new and different skills, our college is positioned to help them.”