Photo courtesy Michigan Reconnect / Shutterstock
Photo courtesy Michigan Reconnect / Shutterstock

Many Michiganders have used the pandemic to go back to school, with the help of two state programs promising free tuition. 


Need to Know

  • Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect cover in-district tuition for Michiganders who qualify. 
  • So far, more than 100,000 Michiganders have already been accepted or enrolled.
  • Futures for Frontliners is closed, but Michigan Reconnect applications are still open for people 25 and up looking to go back to school. 

DETROIT—Shelby Essenmacher, 30, will be a nurse in three short years—a pursuit that seemed impossible to her just prior to the pandemic.

After exiting foster care, Essenmacher finished high school while living alone and working full time. Upon graduating with high marks, she immediately enrolled at Macomb Community College and Wayne State, with a yearlong scholarship to her name.

But when her scholarship ran out, Essenmacher couldn’t make it work. In need of money and without a degree, Essenmacher dropped out and picked up work at local restaurants. She stayed in the service industry for the next decade, until where she was bartending closed because of the pandemic. 

It was back to square one. 

“The economics of the pandemic are especially tough for people like me with only a high school diploma, limited experience and no real job prospects,” Essenmacher said. “And then I heard about Michigan Reconnect.”

During the pandemic, more than 100,000 Michigan residents have seized on a rare opportunity to enroll tuition-free at in-district community colleges, thanks to state programs that have opened doors for frontline workers and people past the traditional college age, like Essenmacher. 

Community colleges throughout the state have seen a jump in enrollment because of Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. These two programs are part of a larger goal to prepare more Michiganders for workforce transformations that experts predict will increasingly require a post-secondary education.

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For Essenmacher and others like her around the state, they’ve given them a new chance at “dream” jobs and profitable careers. When Essenmacher graduates, she can expect to make between $31 and $42 an hour as a registered nurse, the state says. 

“Nothing brings success like gaining new knowledge and skills that can lead to an exciting and rewarding career, especially in this dynamic marketspace,” Jackson College president Daniel Phelan said in a recent statement.

At Jackson College and other communities around the state, enrollees of these programs make up more than 20% of the student body population this semester, according to figures released by the state at the end of March. And many people who have been accepted haven’t even begun class yet.

Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect were both signed into law in April 2020 and the rollout began last year. State officials are still working to place accepted applicants into community colleges around the state. 

Future for Frontliners covers tuition for frontline workers who did not have a prior degree, inspired by the GI bill during World War II, which let veterans attend college for free. Applications are now closed.

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Michigan Reconnect pays in-district tuition for any adult 25 or older who wants to pursue an associate’s degree or skill certification, and applications are open.

More than 28,000 people began the Future for Frontliners program in 2020, which garnered more than 120,000 applications. Nearly 93,000 state residents have been accepted into Michigan Reconnect. 

Districts have seen diverging trends from students pursuing the pathway. This semester, Jackson College had almost 400 students enrolled for the first time at a higher-learning institution because of the two programs, while Grand Rapids Community College had far fewer first-time students.

GRCC instead has seen a 14% increase in students 30 and older since prior to the pandemic. 

Essenmacher, the aspiring nurse, is hoping to finish her schooling at Wayne County Community College by 2025. In a write-up for MIchigan Reconnect, she thanked her husband and Reconnect program navigator Sean Henry for getting her into a sustainable career path for the future.

“This is a life changer. I can now seriously go after my dream of becoming a nurse without worrying about the cost of tuition, which has always been a major obstacle preventing me from going back to school,” Essenmacher said.

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