Whitmer proposes free college for front-line workers

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic without a higher-education degree would be offered free college classes or a technical certificate under a program proposed Wednesday by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The program, Futures for Frontliners, is being touted as the first of its kind in the nation as front-line workers provide essential services while most other state residents stay at home to help mitigate the spread of the virus. Whitmer said the idea was inspired by the federal GI Bill, which funded college for military veterans returning from World War II.

“The Futures for Frontliners program is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to those who have risked their lives on the front lines of this crisis," Whitmer said Wednesday. “I want to assure all of our workers we will never forget those of you who stepped up and sacrificed their own health during this crisis. You’re the reason we’re going to get through this."

The program is aimed at adults without college degrees who are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, and as employees in public safety, sanitation, and the delivery and manufacturing of personal protection equipment.

Essential workers like Heaven Jajou, a grocery cashier who makes $12 an hour, hope they can benefit.

Jajou, 18, who lives in Troy, has asthma and works 10-hour days, six days a week at Ferndale Foods because she can’t afford to stay home. The program would be a big help, she said.

"It's a nice way to pay it back for the people who are out here risking their lives," Jajou said.

The program would ensure tuition-free opportunities in community colleges for essential workers to earn a technical certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the program will help Whitmer reach a goal she set to increase the proportion of working-age adults in Michigan with a technical certificate or college degree from 45% to 60% by 2030.

Representatives for Whitmer did not respond immediately Wednesday to questions about how much the program would cost, how it would be funded and who would qualify.

Also unknown is whether Whitmer's plan will get support from the GOP-led Legislature. The governor, in announcing the program, said she would work with the bipartisan legislative coalition that helped pass the Michigan Reconnect Program last month. That program offers adults older than 25 without college degrees tuition-free access to community college. 

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, said he knew little about the Futures for Frontliners program Wednesday afternoon beyond reading a headline about it.

"I don’t know where the funding for the program comes from," said Hernandez, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"... If it's going to be a program implemented legislatively and the governor wants to work on that, I’d like to know more about it. I'd like to be part of the conversation. It's something we will have to talk about as we go forward."

Henry Ford College President Russell Kavalhuna, meanwhile, applauded the governor's proposal for front-line workers.

He said the program appears to be aimed at Michigan residents "who have been left behind and left out of college education,” including people who work full-time but don’t have the resources to attend college.

"But they are the people who really want access to the middle class," Kavalhuna said.

To those on the front lines, Kavalhuna added: “You have earned this kind of support from your government for your service to our community right now. If this comes to fruition, then take advantage and enroll in a community college and better yourself because we at Henry Ford College, and I know many colleges, are interested in … changing lives through education."

Michelle Miller-Adams, a researcher at the Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute who studies the free college movement, called the governor's proposal "both politically powerful and economically wise."

"For the most part, the workers being targeted are in low-wage jobs that don't lend themselves to career ladders or family-sustaining wages," Miller-Adams said. "The opportunity to get a degree or certificate tuition-free could really help build career ladders for these folks on the front lines.

"It is also economically smart for Michigan to invest in retraining workers sooner rather than later to help our economy grow as the crisis eases."

Miller-Adams said the program should be "fairly low cost" because many of the essential workers would qualify for Pell grants, which provide federal funds to students from low-income families.

"Experience has shown that a simple, clear message of a tuition-free path to a degree or certificate is a powerful tool for getting folks onto a post-secondary pathway," Miller-Adams said.

Christopher Fultz, who has a degree in theater but is employed as a cashier at Western Market in Ferndale, said free education for essential workers sounds promising. He hopes people can take advantage of the program to enroll in colleges as well as skilled trades training.

"I am all for more education," said Fultz. "It just opens up a lot of possibilities."