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Scholarship for essential workers draws 85,000 applicants

A Grand Rapids Community College Sign on a street corner.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids Community College campus downtown. According to state data, 6305 people in Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, have applied for the Futures for Frontliners scholarship so far.

When Governor Gretchen Whitmer unveiled the Futures for Frontliners scholarship program in September, she said it was the state government’s show of gratitude for the work essential workers did during the coronavirus lockdown throughout the spring and summer.

The scholarship program provides a tuition-free pathway for essential workers to attend their local community college, or finish high school, tuition free. According to the state department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, more than 85 ,000 Michiganders have applied for the scholarship since September.  

“This [scholarship] is just one way to support them pursuing a dream or a certificate and training that will help them put more money in their pockets for a higher wage career,” said Kerry Ebersole, director of Sixty by 30, a state initiative to increase the percentage of Michigan workers with a skill certificate or college degree.

Ebersole estimates “tens of thousands” of Michiganders could end up going to their local community college tuition free over the next year. The Futures for Frontliners program is funded with $24 million dollars from the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief (GEER) Fund, which was part of the CARES Act Congress passed to stimulate the economy earlier in the year during the pandemic.

“As we look to mobilizing our workforce with the skills to earn higher wages and hopefully recession-proof jobs … it helps our businesses compete in the economy today and tomorrow,” Ebersole said. “There are businesses that need a highly skilled workforce to compete in today's economy.”

Ebersole says scholarship recipients have four years to complete an associate’s degree or other skilled training certificate. There’s a six credit hour-per semester requirement as well, and Ebersole says no money gets paid out until students are in the classroom.

Learn more about eligibility requirements for the “Futures for Frontliners” program, here.

There is a long list of business groups that are supporting the Futures for Frontliners scholarship. Alexa Kramer, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, says the scholarship program is a boon in uncertain times. Kramer says a growing number of industries need skilled or specialized employees, and the pandemic has only hastened that change in the economic landscape.

Credit Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity
Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity
This map shows the number of people that have applied for the Futures for Frontliners program in each county.

“Things are forever changing,” Kramer said. “The need for more education, having those credentials and certificates … in order to really let [workers] climb that economic prosperity ladder is so needed.”

The recent state budget agreement also includes $30 million in funding for the Michigan Reconnect program, another initiative meant to help more prospective students attend community college tuition free.  

Many Michigan community college students struggle to finish their programs. State data tracks “success rates” for public community colleges and universities.

For community college students, a “success” is considered to be achievement of a certificate, associate degree, or transfer to a university. By this measure, just 43% of Michigan community college students that began school in the 2015-16 academic year have achieved “success”; a rate Ebersolee acknowledges is low.

“We’re going to be working very closely with community colleges, they’re a key partner in this,” Ebersole said. “They’re very aware of what those success rates have been and are working to set in a place a set of interventions to help support their student body.”

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Radio, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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