Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
The cashiers checking out groceries, the janitors cleaning up other people’s messes, and the bus drivers who ensure that people get where they need to go are part of the essential worker workforce in Calhoun County.
They also are among 625,000 essential workers in Michigan and more than 55 million throughout the United States, 70 percent of whom do not have a college degree, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In July, Kellogg Community College became one of 28 community colleges statewide that signed on as Frontliners Champions to help interested essential workers earn a college degree as part of the “Futures for Frontliners” program
. Introduced in April by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the initiative provides free tuition for those who qualify.
“We love the message ‘free tuition.’ While there may be some small caveats for that, anytime we can get individuals interested in attending school, it’s a win-win for us,” says Nikki Jewell, Dean of Enrollment Services and Financial Aid for KCC. “Most low-income people don’t realize that if they have a high school diploma or GED, they can still go to school for free.
“There are opportunities out there and this is just another one.”
Jewell and Eric Greene, KCC’s Chief Information Officer, have been making presentations
to groups and organizations and using other forms of communication to ensure that employees in Barry, Branch, and Calhoun counties -- the college's service area -- know about their eligibility to receive a tuition-free college education.
Futures for Frontliners, the first such initiative in the United States, was inspired by the G.I. Bill
which began as a program to offer free college education to those serving their country in World War II and continues today. The program is a $24 million investment funded by the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund -- part of the federal CARES Act.
Participating schools will bill the state to be reimbursed for the tuition, Jewell says.
Whitmer says Futures for Frontliners was created to provide, “a tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate to essential workers who do not have a college degree, including those who lack a high school diploma.”
The program also supports the state’s Sixty by 30 goal
announced at the Governor’s first State of the State address to increase the number of working-age Michiganders completing an industry certificate, college degree, or apprenticeship. The goal is to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 45% today to 60% by 2030.
At the time, Whitmer said that, “A more educated workforce is essential to help businesses grow, make Michigan a more competitive state to attract jobs of the future and help families navigate a changing economy and increase income.”
The vast majority of good-paying jobs continue to require at least some education beyond high school, says Jeff Donofrio, Director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
According to the Economic Policy Institute study
, three in 10 essential workers have some college (30%) or a high school diploma (29%) and one in 10 have less than a high school diploma.
The study also concludes that:
• Women make up the majority of essential workers in health care (76%) and government and community-based services (73%).
• Men make up the vast majority of essential workers in the energy sector (96%), water and wastewater management (91%), and critical manufacturing (88%).
• People of color make up the majority of essential workers in food and agriculture (50%) and in industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services (53%).
“Futures for Frontliners gives those who helped save lives and kept our communities operating during the height of COVID an opportunity to increase their skills and income and helps us close the state’s skills gap,” he says. “For Michigan’s economy to recover and grow, it's critical we continue to provide expanded opportunities to all.”
Sign me up
Since the program launched in mid-September, more than 70,000 individuals have applied, says Kelly Ebersole, Director of the Sixty by 30 program.
Jewell says she doesn’t yet know how many of those applicants may end up at KCC. She says this pool of students will have the opportunity to select their field of study.
“We do know that we have a lot of openings in our Allied Health areas
,” Jewell says. “We have availability and space in those programs and there are good-paying occupational job openings in our community.”
Any essential worker who meets the eligibility requirements qualifies for Futures for Frontliners. The deadline to apply is Dec. 31.
“When they submit that application they receive word from the State about what their eligibility is,” Jewell says. “They will receive that eligibility letter within a week.”
The criteria to meet eligibility requirements includes: not already having a degree and not being in default on a student loan.
“If they meet those minimal criteria, they get that scholarship,” Jewell says.
To allay any concerns that some in this new pool of students may have about going back to school, Jewell says staff will work with them to let them know about support services and resources that will be available to them as they make this transition. These resources include access to technology that includes laptops and reliable internet service.
“I think that with all new students we try to the best of our ability to meet each student where they are, especially in this difficult time when we are dealing with a pandemic,” Jewell says. “We spent the summer preparing our staff to assist students who come to us from all different places and all different mindsets. We know they come to us with some apprehension.”
Despite any misgivings essential workers may have about getting a degree, Jewell encourages them to apply to the Futures for Frontliners program.
“One of the things I really want individuals to do is just to apply. Even if they don’t use it right away. We know things may change. They can use it in the spring semester, but they can also use it in the summer and fall semesters,” she says. “But if they don’t apply by Dec. 31, they won’t have this opportunity.”