Lisa Baldyga, Employment Readiness Specialist with Northwestern Michigan College and Northwest Michigan Works!, received a Futures for Frontliners scholarship, which she plans to use towards an associates in applied science degree, focusing on landscape management.

TRAVERSE CITY — This week marked the first Futures for Frontliners scholarships being awarded across the state, with 132 of them going to students at Northwestern Michigan College.

In all, there are 317 people approved for the scholarship, representing a mix of current students and new students headed to NMC for the spring semester.

Lisa Baldyga dabbled in college but never finished her degree. She was thrilled to get the F4F scholarship, which is earmarked by the state of Michigan for people who worked at essential jobs during the pandemic.

“I was worried about being older and having debt,” said Baldyga, 57, who will pursue a degree in landscape management.

Baldyga, of Traverse City, is an employee readiness specialist at NMC, where she works with college students. She also works with high school students in the Jobs for Michigan Graduates program through Michigan Works.

During the shutdown she worked with students and their families who had lost jobs.

The F4F scholarship program has buoyed enrollment numbers for the semester that starts Jan. 11, said Todd Neibauer, vice president for student services and technologies. While the overall numbers of students registered for spring are down about 16 percent from last year at this time, the number of new students is keeping pace with last year, he said.

“It’s hard to attribute that to anything but the frontliners,” Neibauer said.

The college budgeted for an expected 15 percent decline in enrollment this year because of COVID-19. Even so, the fall semester saw a drop of just under 10 percent, he said.

He said the F4F numbers will change as more students are found eligible and will hopefully bring enrollment up. Students can register right up until the semester starts, he said.

As of this week about 90,000 essential workers across the state have applied for scholarships through the F4F program, which aims to provide free tuition to 625,000 frontliners who worked through the early weeks of the pandemic and state shutdown.

The program launched in September; applications are being taken until Dec. 31.

“I hope it gives a bunch of folks who put themselves out there during the pandemic the opportunity to get help finance school, finish their degree and get a better paying job,” Neibauer said.

Michigan residents are eligible for the scholarship if they worked in an essential industry at least part-time for 11 weeks between April 1 and June 30, working outside of the home for at least part of that time. Essential industries include health care, financial services, food and agriculture, law enforcement and first responders, water and wastewater, transportation and more.

People who already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree do not qualify for the scholarship, though people who are currently enrolled in an associate degree program do, as long as they meet other criteria.

Falechia Barry is glad that scholarship recipients can enroll in any educational program, not just frontline careers. The 27-year-old is just finishing up her first semester in the fresh water studies program, though is working as a home health aide.

The Frankfort resident was working two jobs and worrying about student loan debt, but with the scholarship can now cut back to one.

“It’s pretty much a blessing,” Barry said. “Without it I don’t know how I would pay for school. It definitely saves me from having to work two jobs again.”

All students need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and any grants or scholarships they are awarded will apply first.

The F4F application is made to the state and 1,304 people who applied indicated they planned to go to NMC, Neibauer said. Nearly 1,000 of them did not qualify, many of them because they did not fill out their FAFSA, he said, but could still qualify if they go back and do that.

Other applicants did not meet the 11-week requirement or already have a degree.

Neibauer said anybody who didn’t qualify for the F4F program may qualify for the Reconnect Michigan program that would provide tuition-free certifications or associate’s degree in high-demand industries for people 25 and older who do not already have a degree.

Under the program, the state would pay tuition and fees that are not covered by Pell grants or other state assistance.

The program has been in the works for a couple of years and the state has indicated that an announcement would be made in February in time for students to sign up for the summer semester, Neibauer said.

F4F was inspired by the 1944 GI Bill that provided a range of benefits — including college degrees — for returning WWII veterans.

It is funded by $24 million in the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief Fund, which is part of the federal CARES Act.

It is part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Sixty by 30 goal to increase the number of working-age people with a certificate or college degree from 45 percent to 60 percent by 2030. Closing that skill gap will provide more skilled workers to address shortages and make the state more competitive for economic growth.

Baldyga said she is always telling students how important it is to go to college.

“I need to practice what I preach, so I decided to go back to school,” she said.

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