The state of Michigan will launch the nation’s first program offering tuition-free college to the approximately 625,000 Michigan residents who served as essential workers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday morning. 

 “Tuition-free access to get an associate degree or an industry-recognized occupational certificate is a chance for thousands of people to get on a path to a good job that will support themselves and their families,” Whitmer said at a press conference Thursday. “It also helps to close our skills gaps in Michigan, grow our economy and increase our familys’ paychecks.”

Future for Frontliners was inspired by the G.I. Bill, which provided a range of benefits including subsidies to get college degrees to those serving their country in World War II. This new program will offer Michiganders without college or high school diplomas an opportunity to gain skills to work in high-wage careers.

Whitmer said this opportunity is not only available to those working in the medical field, but also any essential worker in manufacturing, nursing homes, grocery stores, sanitation, delivery, retail and more. 

Funded by the governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the program is a $24 million investment that will support essential workers as they pursue further education. 

In a press release, John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the program will acknowledge the efforts of essential workers and allow them to invest in their education and future.

“Michigan manufacturers have been on the front lines in defense against the COVID-19 threat, creating essential products necessary for daily life; from food and pharmaceuticals, to transportation and even toilet paper,” Walsh said. “The Futures for Frontliners program will recognize these truly-deserving heroes, investing in their personal future as well as the economic future of our state.” 

Russ Kavalhunda, president of Henry Ford College, echoed these sentiments in a statement. 

“Henry Ford College, and I personally, are proud to support the Futures for Frontliners program, and to partner with the State of Michigan and other public and private partners to help frontline workers create a better future,” Kavalhuna said. “We believe this program represents a unique, first-of-its-kind opportunity for people who have earned a college education. They put themselves at risk to serve Michigan residents during a pandemic. We will put their futures at the forefront now.” 

In a statement, state Senator Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, lauded the program.

“We all know someone who put others ahead of themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Irwin wrote. “Instead of staying home and staying safe, they selflessly went into work because they are an essential worker — and for that, we are forever grateful.”

At the press conference, when asked about reports that President Donald Trump purposely downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic for months, Whitmer said this misinformation threatened the American people. Trump is expected to visit Saginaw, Mich. later today.

“The biggest threat to the American people is the American president right now,” Whitmer said. “It’s devastating, and I do not relish saying that. But the fact of the matter is, there's been so much more loss of life, because we haven’t had accurate, consistent medical information just coming out of the chief executive of our nation.”

Daily Staff Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.

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