LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — More Michiganders are going back to college because of educational programs launched during the pandemic.

One of them is Futures for Frontliners, which allows essential workers to complete high school or community college for free. Because of the program, community colleges in West Michigan saw some of the highest application rates they’ve ever seen.

Grand Rapids Community College says it had just over 3,000 applications, 1,700 of whom are already on campus. Kalamazoo Valley Community College had about 1,600 applicants, while Muskegon Community College led the three with more than 3,300. Statewide, there were more than 120,000 applicants.

With three quarters of the jobs in Michigan requiring education beyond high school, many of the folks returning to class through this program are over the age of 25.

“That’s our big market that we’re seeing is those that are really 25 years or older that are coming back and think that it’s ‘my time,’ which is correct,” said Stephanie Briggs, the director of admissions at Muskegon Community College. “It’s your time to get in here and get this college paid for.

“‘I don’t want to be the oldest person in the class,’ right? Or ‘I haven’t been in school in forever!’ Don’t think that way — MCC is here. We have a ton of different resources,” Briggs continued. “This is your opportunity to shine. And so I encourage everyone, if you’re thinking about it, just go ahead and take that leap of faith and let’s do it.”

If you missed out on Frontliners, which hit its deadline on Dec. 31, 2020, you still have an opportunity through Michigan Reconnect, which offers free tuition for those 25 and older.

Michigan Reconnect has already prompted 47,000 applications statewide since becoming available Feb. 2, state and college officials said Monday. State lawmakers approved the $300 million program last year.

Officials say about 1 million people in West Michigan alone are eligible to get a scholarship through the program.

“Per capita, Kalamazoo, Kent and Muskegon counties, respectively, have the largest number of Reconnect applicants in West Michigan, but there are plenty more out there,” Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Acting Director Susan Corbin said during a Monday morning virtual press event about the program. “Imagine the possibilities for our families and workforce if even half of those eligible took advantage of this opportunity.”

Some 8,000 people in the region have applied so far, including more than 2,500 in Kent County, about 750 in Ottawa County, about 250 in Allegan County and about 115 in Barry County.

About 800 have already been cleared to go to GRCC.

“In the place that we are right now in trying to dig out of a pandemic, what more relevant an opportunity than to help get folks back to work and to help get our companies back up and running,” GRCC President Bill Pink said. “How relevant and responsive of our state to put this Michigan Reconnect out there for so many Michiganders.”

Pink said Michigan Reconnect and Future for Frontliners “take barriers off the table” so people can access higher education. He urged people to apply.

“My words to you: Come on,” Pink said. “Come on in. Let’s get this done. You have an opportunity to really advance in terms of what your ‘next’ is.”

Victoria Ramon-Fox of Battle Creek is using Michigan Reconnect to pay her way through Kellogg Community College.

“I’m taking advantage of a program that could help push me forward so that I can help other people around me that I care about,” she said.

There is no current deadline for the Reconnect program. You must have completed the FAFSA documentation to enroll.

“We all need to do our part by encouraging any adult without a degree to take advantage of this opportunity,” Corbin said.

GRCC added Monday that it has frozen tuition for the 2021-22 academic year, limiting the total yearly cost for a full-time student to $3,969.

—News 8’s Donovan Long contributed to this report.