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Frontline workers pursue a better life through Michigan's free tuition program

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Not living on the edge. Being a role model. Following your dreams.

These are some of the reasons cited by 85,000 Michigan residents as to why they have applied for the state's Futures for Frontliners scholarship — a program for essential workers to get free tuition to attend community college so they can expand their skills and earn higher wages.

Emily Benson, a single mother from Southgate, hopes the program will help her give her daughter a better life.

The program, announced in September by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, is way of expressing gratitude to people who went to work to provide essential services while most residents stayed home at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is modeled after the GI Bill that provided free college degrees to those who served the country during World War II.

Residents fromevery county in the state have submitted applications, with the highest number, 18,584, coming from Wayne County, followed by Macomb (8,341), Oakland (7,713) and Kent (6,305) counties.

As the Dec. 31 deadline approaches for Michigan residents to apply for the free program, state officials are highlighting residents who have shared why they applied. 

For Kristy Spakowski, a Saginaw single mother of four, free tuition "means more than any financial gain.” 

“It means that I can show my children that at 45 years old, it’s never too late to follow your heart," said Spakowski, who plans to return to school for nursing. "It means that I followed my dreams even when I didn’t think I could and still tried to make the world a better place by being a good nurse.”

For Detroit resident Nathaniel Hawkins, free tuition "means the world to me."

 “It would be a great opportunity to further my educational goals and to obtain a job in my area of study,"  said Hawkins, who is seeking a degree in criminal justice. "Paying tuition can be hard when you do not have the financial means.”

Southgate resident and single mother Emily Benson has been unable to complete school due to financial hardship. She said free tuition would give her a chance to finish her degree and give her daughter a better life.

“I would be setting an example that no matter what, it’s possible to achieve your goals.” said Benson.

More stories are featured on the Futures for Frontliners website, and frontline workers can submit their stories for a chance to be featured on the site and social media.

The $24 million program is the nation's first and only program to offer free tuition for frontline workers, according to Camara Lewis, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. 

It is funded by the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund — part of the CARES Act, which assists businesses and families from the impacts of COVID-19.

It is among the state's programs to meet a goal of boosting the proportion of Michigan adults with a degree to 60% by 2030. Currently, 48% of residents have some type of postsecondary credential, Lewis said.

Michigan needs more residents with degrees to increase individuals' economic prosperity and make the economy stronger, state officials say.

"Futures for Frontliners has offered the opportunity for Michiganders, who have put themselves in harm’s way early in the pandemic, to pursue their dreams,” said Kerry Ebersole, senior adviser and director of  Michigan's Sixty by 30 office within LEO.

“This tuition-free path to continue educational attainment and training in high-demand areas not only offers increased wages for individuals, but also arms our businesses with the highly trained workforce they need to be competitive in today's economy."