About 625,000 front-line workers are eligible for tuition-free college under a program created Thursday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Futures for Frontliners. 

The $24 million program financed through federal CARES Act funding will help people obtain technical certificates, associate degrees and bachelor degrees. Eligibility applies to Michigan residents who have worked in an essential industry outside their home from April to June and have not already gained an associate or bachelor’s degree. 

“These men and women have emerged as the real heroes in the midst of this pandemic,” Whitmer said during a Thursday news conference.

The program, the governor said, is the first of its kind and was inspired by the GI bill that provided free college tuition to veterans of World War II and beyond. People working in the medical field, manufacturing, sanitation, retail and grocery stores are among those who could qualify.

“Eighty percent of Michigan’s high-growth, high-wage jobs require formal learning beyond high school,” said Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network. “This opportunity for a tuition-free certificate or associate degree will enable thousands of our dedicated frontline workers access to education and careers that many thought wouldn’t be possible —especially people of color, low-income workers and first-generation college-going students.”

The scholarship program aligns with Whitmer’s goal to increase the number of adults with a skilled training or a college degree from 45% to 60% by 2030. It encompasses workers who may have been required to work during the stay-home order from April through June.

Sandy K. Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said it also is working toward a goal of 60% postsecondary degree attainment by 2030 and looks forward to the Futures for Frontliners program’s contribution to these efforts.

“A strong talent pipeline is essential to a strong economy,” said Baruah. “Empowering individuals, especially the frontline workers getting our state through the COVID-19 crisis, to continue or restart their educations is a well-deserved recognition for their service and step toward improved educational opportunity across the state.”

Dozens of Michigan businesses and associations have pledged to support the program by alerting workers and members about the opportunity. Among the cooperating businesses are Kroger, Lowe’s, Target, Walmart, Meijer, Home Deport, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announced another $1 million that will be dedicated to help people seeking a post-secondary education to afford the entry tests and pre-exam coursework that might be required for those programs.

“This program will save people time and money while helping them to get another step closer to earning the degree or certification that paves the way for a wide range of durable and long-term employment, career and entrepreneurial opportunities,” Gilchrist said. 

The Detroit-based Wayne County Community College District, which has five campuses in Metro Detroit, welcomed the program.

“Our mission is to provide pathways to better lives through higher education,” WCCCD Chancellor Curtis Ivery said in a statement. “We are proud to work with the state of Michigan to fulfill our mission and give essential workers who have given so much to all of us during this time an opportunity to reach new career goals.

The program was announced on the six-month anniversary of Michigan confirming its first two coronavirus cases on March 10. Since then, the state has logged 109,519 cases and 6,569 deaths.

Applications are due Dec. 31, and more details regarding who qualifies are available at michigan.gov/frontliners. Those who are in default on a federal student loan will be ruled ineligible.

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