Illinois should avoid Michigan’s irresponsible plan to grant essential workers free college.

Stephen Kelley

A new initiative by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer plans to grant free tuition to community colleges for all of Michigan’s essential workers who worked 11 of the 13 lockdown weeks between April 30 — June 1. 

Such workers are only eligible if they have not previously earned an associate or bachelor’s degree and are not already by default on a federal student loan. 

They must submit a Future for Frontliners application by 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31. It is up to Gov. Whitmer to decide how she wants to spend the $24 million she has allocated for her Futures for Frontliners program. 

Many College of Lake County students who worked as essential workers may be wondering if Illinois should provide similar education benefits. 

However,  Illinois should avoid following Michigan’s lead, as not only could the program be a significant misuse of federal funds, but the aid provided could be administered in several more fair and helpful ways.

Before discussing better uses for the money, it is crucial to recognize the source of the funds. 

Photo of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer via

Photo of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer via

Gov. Whitmer is set to finance her plan using funds from the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, an overwhelmingly bipartisan piece of legislation, which grants over $2 trillion to workers, families, small businesses, states, and municipal governments (including Native American Tribal governments). 

Initially, the bill was enacted to preserve as much economic security as possible in the wake of the nationwide Coronavirus shutdowns. 

The following is a brief list of accompanying general guidelines provided by the U.S. Treasury:

“The CARES Act requires that the payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund only be used to cover expenses that—

  1. are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19); 

  2. were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of March 27, 2020 (the date of enactment of the CARES Act) for the State or government; and 

  3. were incurred during the period that begins on March 1, 2020, and ends on December 30, 2020.”

Off the bat, it doesn’t seem like paying for anyone’s college tuition fits any of these requirements; it looks like this idea is a misapplication of money that was supposed to go to COVID-19 relief. 

Even still, there are better uses of money than this. If Illinois has extra funds to give out, there are better places to give.

By April, 42 states, including Michigan, had passed stay-at-home orders, and unemployment reports increased sharply. 

Now that lockdowns have kept non-essential workers from working, isn’t it fair that the responsible states give something back for the inconvenience of unemployment? 

After all, doing so will more readily adhere to the actual requirements attached to the funds provided by the Federal CARES Act. 

Providing various aid methods to those who lost their jobs during the stay-at-home orders meets all three criteria for state usage of federal funds.

Pictured: College of Lake County student William Witt working. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kelley.

Pictured: College of Lake County student William Witt working. Photo courtesy of Stephen Kelley.

Additionally, many of the jobs deemed essential were picked seemingly arbitrarily. 

Doctors, nurses, firefighters, and first responders are necessary because of the nature of the lockdown. 

Hardware stores and groceries are critical to life and comfort. 

But in many states, including Illinois, CBD and marijuana dispensaries were protected as essential businesses, and liquor stores were broadly named essential as well. 

However, we can rightly say that neither liquor stores nor recreational cannabis dispensaries provide as necessary and helpful a service as healthcare professionals. 

Healthcare professionals, first responders, and emergency personnel have little or no use for free tuition because they will already have the degrees demanded by their fields. 

In other words, the people most deserving of thanks gain nothing from the program meant to thank them.

Granting select people a free degree is an entirely unnecessary use of money that would be better used in other ways, ways that adhere to the requirements issued with that money. 

If given the choice of granting people free college tuition or providing aid for unemployed persons and families, Illinois should opt for the compassionate route. 

Whether this means putting more money into communities struggling after a stifling lockdown or towards programs for economic stimulation, there are numerous alternative uses for aid money that could benefit so many more people during times of critical need. 

The people who worked entirely vital roles during the stay-at-home orders have been admirable, exemplary, and deserving of gratitude. 

Many of them were heroes. 

Without diminishing this truth, we must still find the most productive and responsible way to thank them. 

By avoiding the course of Michigan’s Futures for Frontliners program, Illinois can explore better methods of expressing useful and meaningful thanks to our most heroic essential workers and still use its relief money for its intended purpose: relief.