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Michigan Offers Free College Education To Essential Workers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Think front-line workers. You might think doctors and nurses, and you would be right. But there are many more people who fill essential roles during the pandemic. In Michigan, the state will offer free community college tuition to essential workers. As Ben Thorp of member station WCMU in Mount Pleasant, Mich., reports, a whole lot more people will qualify than just doctors and nurses.

BEN THORP, BYLINE: Michigan's program would cover a two-year associate's degree for workers who were required by their job to leave the house and who worked at least 11 weeks in the spring during the pandemic. That includes grocery workers, gas station clerks and sanitation workers, so long as they don't have an associate's degree or aren't defaulting on a federal loan. Nineteen-year-old Autumn Warner works at Witbeck's grocery in Clare, located in central Michigan. She recently graduated high school and is applying for the program.

AUTUMN WARNER: I graduated this year, and now I'm working full time.

THORP: Autumn's mother, Amber, says free tuition is a welcome boost for their family.

AMBER: Being a low-income family, that's a really, really big deal to get her going further than I did. I was enrolled in college, and then I got pregnant. And so ta-da.

THORP: Yeah.

AMBER: She's here, and I never was able to go back.

THORP: Fred Grieb is 29 years old and worked long hours as a paramedic in the spring. Grieb says the new program feels like an acknowledgment of how difficult that was.

FRED GRIEB: It helps, it shows that we were appreciated for staying, you know, working during this time, you know, at a point where the world kept turning, and everybody got put on pause. You know what I mean?

THORP: Across the country, roughly 17 states, including Iowa and Tennessee, offer some kind of free tuition program to community college. Tennessee's program is targeted at any high school graduate looking to get an associate's degree. Iowa's aims at residents who enroll in programs for high-demand jobs, like cybersecurity. But Michigan's effort to target front-line essential workers is thought to be unique. It's funded through $24 million under the CARES Act, a pot of money that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set aside without legislative approval. There are some concerns over whether the money will be enough. Jeff Donofrio is with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. He says while more than 600,000 Michigan residents could be eligible, only a small fraction will end up enrolling.

JEFF DONOFRIO: You know, when you start these types of programs, you're making a lot of assumptions around how many people will be eligible, how many people will want to take you up on the opportunity. And I think we're in a period of time with COVID where it's not really that clear how all those assumptions are going to work out. I think it would be a good problem for us to have, though, that too many people sign up.

THORP: College advocacy groups like the program but caution that tuition is one of many barriers students face getting through college. Lou Glazer is with Michigan Future Inc., a group promoting education and training policies. He says there need to be additional supports to ensure enrolled students stay in school and complete their degrees.

LOU GLAZER: It's going to be an interesting experiment to see if the essential workers who take advantage of it have a substantially higher completion rate than is traditionally true because without finishing, the economic payoff is basically zero.

THORP: State officials say they have already seen tens of thousands of applications for the new program. Those the state deems essential workers under the plan have until the end of the year to apply.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Thorp. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.