Frontline Michigan workers can get free 4-year degree under partnership

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Free education for frontline workers is expanding.

Eastern Michigan University and Henry Ford College on Wednesday are announcing a partnership that offers a pathway to a free or reduced-cost four-year degree at EMU for HFC students who are taking advantage of the state’s Future for Frontliners scholarship program.

Graduates' personalized mortar boards broadcast personl messages during Eastern Michigan University's spring commencement at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti on April 21, 2018.

Futures for Frontliners is a Michigan initiative and the nation's first program for essential workers to get free tuition to attend community college so they can expand their skills and earn higher wages.

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

But the partnership between EMU and Henry Ford College goes beyond a community college degree by helping frontline workers get a bachelor's degree at the Ypsilanti university. It is being hailed as the first program of its kind in Michigan.

“These essential workers have earned their chance at as a better life through education, not just an associate degree … but beyond that,” said HFC President Russell Kavalhuna, who approached many universities with the idea.

"What EMU has done is either significantly reduce that burden on that path, or in some cases completely eliminate it for people who want to continue their education after having given us their service on the front lines."

EMU President James Smith said HFC and Eastern Michigan "share a common interest in looking at students who others might say they are not get the full shake."

"What can we do to help these students break through the glass ceiling?" Smith said.

Smith and Kavalhuna expect other community colleges and universities to forge similar partnerships, especially since higher education institutions are focused on Michigan's Sixty by 30 goal of increasing the proportion of working-age adults with a technical certificate or college degree from 45% to 60% by 2030.

Costs of the program would be borne by EMU through its $53.3 million financial aid budget, and include $5,000 per student over two years in $1,250 increments per semester. That translates to a $2,500 annual discount off the university's tuition, which is $11,778 for 2020-21.

For students who qualify for the Pell grant, the federal program for students from families with financial need, the cost of attending EMU would be free. Additionally, the program would seamlessly allow students to transfer from HFC to EMU without loss of credits.  

The announcement comes as the application period for Futures for Frontlines closes Dec. 31. More than 85,000 people have applied, from every county.

“This is great news for the hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who have been serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s good news for our economy,” Whitmer said in a statement. “From the beginning, creating paths to prosperity for more Michiganders has been a top priority for my administration.

"I’m proud that our state has developed a way to give back to the Michiganders who have been working around the clock to protect us, and I am grateful for this partnership between Henry Ford College and Eastern Michigan University to help more people get on a path to opportunity.”