The term “essential” assumed a new meaning in 2020 as essential workers kept critical services going throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A new tuition program, created by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and called “Futures for Frontliners,” offers opportunities for these Michigan workers to further their education, but it may not deliver on its promise of helping more Michigan residents get a college education.
The Futures for Frontliners scholarship provides free community college tuition for essential workers who worked during the height of the pandemic. The spirit of the program is in keeping with Gov. Whitmer’s ambitious goal of having 60% of Michigan’s workers obtain a postsecondary credential by 2030, as announced in her 2019 State of the State address. As of 2017, only 41% of Michigan’s working-age residents had an associate degree or higher, placing Michigan at 30th in the nation.
Gov. Whitmer proposed two workforce development programs to advance her lofty goal: Michigan Reconnect, designed for adults over 25, and the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship, designed for traditional college students. These plans, announced in February 2019, were sidelined by the pandemic. Last April, the governor converted the Michigan Reconnect and Michigan Opportunity Scholarship proposals into the Futures for Frontliners initiative with the help of federal emergency COVID-19 relief.
The Michigan Education Association enthusiastically endorsed Futures for Frontliners, arguing that making postsecondary education more accessible will make the state more economically competitive. To be sure, tuition assistance improves makes postsecondary education more affordable for students, smoothing the path to better employment and enhanced quality of life. In turn, the state reaps the benefits of more tax revenue and decreased demand for government assistance.
But even if we are sympathetic to essential workers’ challenges and grateful for their efforts, Futures for Frontliners warrants a closer look. An uncomfortable oversight in the program’s design is that some people who attend community college will still need to pay some tuition. Community colleges charge higher rates to students who live outside their district, and the Futures for Frontliners scholarship will cover only the in-district rate, leaving students who don’t receive enough from other scholarships to pay the difference.
Rural counties that are not close to higher education institutions are known as “education deserts.” Not surprisingly, residents of these counties — those in the northern Lower Peninsula, the Thumb and the western Upper Peninsula — are less likely to have a postsecondary degree. Although Futures for Frontliners aims to help Michigan boost its rate of college-educated workers, it fails to target residents of rural counties where fewer residents graduate from college.
Another surprising aspect of the program is what it doesn’t pay for. Since community college tuition averages less than $150 per credit hour, the cost of child care and transportation can present even more significant barriers than tuition. These costs, however, are not addressed by the program. Furthermore, certificate programs not offered through community colleges are ineligible, leaving out students needing a short-term job training program such as truck driving or certified nursing assistant.
Finally, although the program imposes some academic, residency, and other eligibility requirements on the people who participate, they aren’t necessarily required to earn a credential. Participants can continue to receive the scholarship until they either earn their associate degree or four years expire. That is, there is no guarantee that this $24 million expenditure will lead to more people earning an associate degree. The state has not made public any mechanism to evaluate the success of the program or to track participants’ progress in it.
Michigan residents should be skeptical of a program that lacks accountability, considering that many aspects of Michigan’s economy remain in shambles from the governor’s pandemic-related policies.
Futures for Frontliners represents an opportunity for some of Michigan’s essential workers, but taxpayers should not expect too much of it. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to boost the overall level of college-educated workers in the state, for little will come from subsidizing tuition for participants who fail to complete their course. And it will require constant monitoring and reporting of scholarship recipients’ progress and achievement to ensure the funds are well spent, for which no system is in place.
A new academic term is starting for the first wave of the program’s participants. It’s now up to them and the community colleges they attend to prove that it has a future.
Jennifer Majorana is a Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership at Central Michigan University and the director of adult literacy at the Legacy Center for Community Success, a nonprofit organization based in Midland, Michigan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the Legacy Center.
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