Lake Michigan College and Southwestern Michigan College announced this week that they will both participate in a new state program that gives frontline pandemic workers in Michigan an opportunity to attend college for free.

The Futures for Frontliners program, announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday, offers free tuition to residents who worked in essential industries during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown but don’t have college degrees. It covers the cost of associate degrees, certificates and high school equivalency exams.

The program is a $24 million investment funded by Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund, which is part of the federal CARES Act.

“This is a terrific opportunity for current and former LMC students who haven’t yet completed their degrees. Many of them worked during the state shutdown, putting their health on the line to keep our community going. They’re heroes and deserve every chance to pursue their dreams,” LMC President Trevor Kubatzke said in a news release.

The program aims to increase the number of skilled workers in the state and help essential workers earn higher wages.

“I think this will help people raise their earning ability,” said SMC President Dr. Joe Odenwald in a news release. “For example, in our district a person with an associate degree or certificate earns a median wage of over $30,000 after a year, while a high school graduate earns a median wage of $14,000. After five years the gap widens even more.”

To take advantage of the program, frontline workers needed to have worked at least half-time in 11 of 13 weeks from April 1 through June 30. This includes employees who staffed grocery stores and restaurants, provided waste management services, manufactured Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), operated public transportation, or provided critical police or fire services, among others.

Those without a high school diploma or equivalency are eligible for additional services to help them prepare for and complete their GED before going on to a community college or job training program.

Applications at both LMC and SMC are open now through Dec. 31, with students eligible to start classes in January.

For more information about the program, visit www.Michigan.gov/Frontliners.

To apply at LMC, visit www.lakemichigancollege.edu/frontliners or call 927-6596.

To apply at SMC, visit swmich.edu/applynow.